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In search of airborne adventure 50 balloonists with their partners, friends and fans are braving the winds at the nationally sanctioned Big Skyfest 2001 this weekend in Billings.

About half of the intrepid mix of sky-high daredevils were buoyed by Big Sky country breezes just past dawn Thursday. The press and VIP preview launch took place without incident from the Howard Johnson’s parking lot.

Threatening rains and ominous thunderclouds over the Beartooth range didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd of about 100 – and twice that number in crew. The motel grounds were a rainbow of inflating nylon and polyester, with sponsoring Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. spokesman Mike Dimich welcoming the adventurers.

Where are we going? Wherever the wind takes us. If we could steer it, it wouldn’t be an adventure. – Pilot Steve Hunter as his Amazing Grape took flight over Billings Thursday morning

This year, the balloonists hail from as far north as Edmonton, Alberta, and south as Mesa, Ariz., with representatives from the Dakotas, Texas, New Mexico, Michigan, Minnesota, Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Wyoming, Illinois, California, Colorado, Nevada, Tennessee, Iowa, Saskatchewan and Nazareth, Belgium.

Skyfest regular Peter Van Overwalle and his balloon “Nelly” once again crossed international borders to float over the meandering Yellowstone River.

“Our arms are open to you,” Dimich told the early risers.

“We’re happy to welcome you to our town with such a bounty of activities to offer you this weekend. We have the possibility of slight showers, but we’re looking at a clear weekend and sunny experience."

The launch produced a bird’s-eye view of blue heron, ducks, geese, red-winged blackbirds and magpies, to the delight of passengers, many of whom were first-time balloonists. Barking dogs, mooing cattle and skittering horses were spooked by the sound of the propane.

“If we could steer them, it wouldn’t be an adventure,” said Steve Hunter, who pilots his Colorado-built Amazing Grape with his wife, Jodi.

The two are typical of this year’s Big Skyfest entrants. They follow the circuit, usually doing 12 to 14 balloon fests a year.

This marks the seventh year for Big Skyfest, which began in Amend Park then moved to the larger Oscar’s Park and has more than doubled in size. The pilots will compete for nearly $100,000 in prize money.

moreinfo Today’s Enjoy section features a full schedule on the Big Skyfest.

Main events Friday are the 5:45 a.m. and 6:45 p.m. launches from Oscar’s Park. The Jordon World Circus gives free shows at 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Many other family activities are planned, with full concessions available.

Tickets are $5 per person per day in advance at County Market and $7 at the gate. Sunday offers a special $3 ticket.

Throughout the weekend, townspeople will be treated to descendants of the gracefully floating balloon that carried Jules Verne across Africa and inspired “Five Weeks in a Balloon” in 1863.

Two daring French brothers beat Verne’s idea by 80 years when Jacques and Joseph Montgolfier sent a large, smoke-filled bag 35 feet into the air. They recorded the world’s first balloon flight in June 1783, but it was the imaginative Verne who forecast the invention of airplanes, submarines, television, guided missiles and satellites.

At Thursday’s preview launch, pilots used some of Verne’s then-fantastic technology to communicate with the ground. Dozens of balloon crew members chased the pilots and passengers along the Yellowstone, up over the Rimrocks and over Lockwood as they landed in pastures, parking lots and church yards.

One chase crew included Stephanie Steingraber and her children, Sam and Jessica, along with family friend John Robertson. The Steingrabers are relatives of the Hunters from Louisville, Colo.

“It’s a fun family thing,” Steingraber said. “The kids love it, and so do I.”

The fest continued Thursday evening with the traditional downtown barbecue and parade of balloonists, with each rig decorated in its balloon’s colors, and the crew and friends dressed in signature T-shirts to match their balloons.

The fest is scheduled through Sunday as a Balloon Tour America event, presented by Rimrock Auto Group. Other BTA races in 2001 are in Live Oak, Fla., and Gasburg, Va. Pilots are vying to qualify for a slot in the Balloon Federation of America National Championships. Billings hopes to eventually secure a slot on the championships.

Christene Meyers can be reached at 657-1243 or at cmeyers@billingsgazette.com.

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