Balloons over Gypsum Creek |

Balloons over Gypsum Creek

Scott N. Miller
Camelot Balloons crew member Sarah Zettle helps prepare the hot air balloon Tintagel for it's journey in the Gypsum skies.

While this is a new thing along Gypsum Creek, the toasts are part of a 219-year-old tradition, with corks popping after every successful flight of a hot air balloon.

Long a staple of the resort offerings in the Vail Valley, Camelot Balloons moved its operations downvalley this summer. The move followed a few years of increasingly tense relations between Camelot’s owner, Merlin Sagon, and several landowners in the Edwards area.

“There were six houses in Edwards when we started,” says Sagon. “There just got to be too many buildings and obstacles. When you’re flying aircraft without steering wheels, it’s nice to have options.”

While balloon pilots say they have no steering wheels or rudders in their craft, an experienced pilot actually has more control of his balloon than it appears. That control comes from an intimate knowledge of the wind, and which direction the breezes are blowing at various altitudes. By moving a balloon up and down through the wind’s various layers, a pilot can get his craft to go more or less where he wants … sometimes.

Even the best pilot, though, is ultimately at nature’s mercy, which is why Sagon and Camelot’s other pilots will quickly pull the plug on a flight if the weather looks the least bit threatening.

“I’d rather be down here wishing I was up there than up there wishing I was down here,” he says.

A pair of recent flights took off and landed in roughly the same spot on a mesa on the Gypsum Creek Ranch. That isn’t always the case. Camelot pilot Frank Mack says just a few days before that he had to set down where a chase crew couldn’t retrieve the balloon. The passengers hiked out a short way, thrilled with the adventure, but Mack had to return to the balloon in the predawn hours of the next morning, packing in new fuel tanks and a large, gasoline motor-driven fan needed to start the inflation process. Mack got the balloon filled, took off and was able to drift to a point where a chase crew could retrieve the heavy wicker passenger basket.

While Mack was annoyed with himself, mostly for the large amount of work he opened himself up to, the kind of seat-of-the-pants flying Camelot does is a rare remnant of the adventure that gave early aviation its glamor.

While piloting airplanes these days relies heavily on instruments and computers, flying a hot air balloon isn’t a lot different than when the Montgolfier brothers flew the first lighter-than-air aircraft near Paris in November of 1783.

Camelot’s balloons have altimeters, but the pilots generally rely on their own sense of altitude. On a recently morning, Sagon and Edwin “Quigley” Bumpass talked often as both were aloft, sharing information about wind. Still, that’s about as high-tech as hot-air balloon flying gets. With so few instruments, information is sometimes gathered by more primitive means. Sagon will occasionally spit out of the gondola.

“It’s not because there’s somebody down there I don’t like,” he says. “It’s to see what the wind’s doing below us.”

After lift-off from the Gypsum Creek Ranch’s gravel airstrip, Sagon’s balloon, Tintagel, floated west, toward Cottonwood Pass. Gaining altitude, a different breeze nudged the balloon back east, over the ranch’s pastures and big orange barn. Sagon then tried to get his balloon and passengers back across the creek to the ranch’s airstrip.

While explaining how air currents usually work off east-facing slopes, “We’ll see what happens,” was the common refrain as he tried to coax the balloon across the treetops and toward the side of the mesa, looking for just the right updraft.

While the winds in the mid-valley generally carry from east to west in the mornings, the winds over the Gypsum Creek Ranch usually form a “box.” Winds blow from the west off Cottonwood Pass and to the north down the Gypsum Creek Valley. Additional breezes blow in from the Eagle River Valley.

While not entirely predictable, the winds do have tendencies.

To get a better idea of how the winds will blow on a given morning, Sagon and Camelot’s other pilots launch small helium balloons – called “pilot balloons” or “pi-balls” – before going up with people.

Eagle County Sheriff A.J. Johnson says Sagon and his pilots tried to be good business neighbors in Edwards. Still, he says, that didn’t stop the complaints.

“We had a number of incidents where we’d end up intervening,” says Johnson.

People either objected to the noise balloon burners make, or were unhappy to have crews and passengers landing on their property. Much of the time deputies were able to work as peace-makers. Other times crews were cited for trespassing.

“I think they’re an asset overall (to the valley),” says Johnson. “But as we grow, things become tighter as far as them being able to operate, and with growth comes more control and more complaints.”

Moving out of the Edwards area was probably a must if Camelot was to continue flying in the valley. Sagon caught a break from the blue last spring when Gypsum Creek Ranch owner Ned Goldsmith left a business card and a note with a chase crew stating, in essence, “you need to come fly from my place.”

So far, the move has worked well, and people staying in Vail and Beaver Creek don’t seem to mind driving a little farther for their rides.

“The reality is, if you’re rafting, fishing or horseback-riding, you have to travel,” says Sagon. “This isn’t any different.”

Sagon got his first taste in 1973, and has been hooked ever since. He’s run Camelot for the past 14 years, and, he says, the chance to drink champagne every morning is just part of the appeal.

“No two flights are the same,” Sagon said. “From a pilot’s standpoint, that really keeps it fun.”

For more information, call 926-2435.

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

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