If a hot air balloon offers a bird’s-eye view, it’s a hummingbird’s-eye view, able to hover and almost pause to take in a full sweep of aerial view. There are rooftops and backyards filled with lawns, trampolines and sheds. The roads and alleyways criss and cross. There’s a certain intimacy to the flight. You’re above it all, literally, but not too far. At times, you can hear traffic and dogs barking. You can see people stepping out onto their balconies or backyards. They can hear the occasional burst of your propane flame. Kids wave from neighborhood schools. Parents and teachers take pictures as the colorful parade passes overhead—or lands on their soccer field.
Almost everyone is happy to see a big, colorful balloon floating overhead, says our pilot, Ray Bair. He should know. Turns out I’m flying with ballooning royalty during my preview flight before the Colorado Springs Labor Day Lift Off. Bair has been flying for 40 years. He has piloted around 2,400 flights, he estimates. He has served as the president of the Balloon Federation of America, and he sits on the Board of Directors for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest balloon festival in the world. He’s an inductee in the Balloon Fiesta Hall of Fame. And he’s the patriarch of three generations of balloon pilots.
His crew and family call him Papa Bair. (Crew member Rita Helak says his Colorado Springs name is Teddy Bair.) Both of his son’s fly. This weekend, son David is the Balloon Meister of the Labor Day Lift Off, directing all the balloon operations of the festival. Bair’s other son is running the ground crew for Bair’s balloon, Kaleidoscope. Bair says a grandson is next in line to receive a pilot’s license. His granddaughter already did, on her 16th birthday, the youngest a pilot can be certified.
But Bair’s legacy isn’t limited only to his genetic lineage. He has also been a flight instructor and former FAA Designated Examiner, certifying more than 500 pilots. You can tell by the way he points out details and offers explanations: how he’s studying the wind to speed or slow our flight, how manipulating the green or red ropes spins the balloon around on its axis, or how his emergency handheld lighter works in the unlikely, but possible, event that the pilot light goes out—and where his two backup lighters are, just in case.
“He’s a phenomenal aviator and a great teacher. He’s the best,” Helak says. “I’ve flown all my life, and I’ve been in the basket with him when thing are not well—bad turbulence. He’s as calm and cool as can be giving directions in life-threatening situations.”
Fortunately, the skies remain smooth for our flight. “I enjoy flying here. This is one of my favorites, actually,” Bair says. “The wind patterns are really nice in Colorado Springs. You head off most frequently to the southeast. And the closer you get to Fountain, the calmer it gets.”
Bair is a veteran of many Labor Day Lift Offs, but he has also accomplished a rarer bucket list feat for aviators. Last winter, Bair piloted his balloon over Pikes Peak, for the second time. It took a few months of waiting to get the right weather window, but Bair says it’s calmer in winter without having to deal with Colorado’s typical summer thunderstorms. The 35-mile flight from Florissant to Fountain reached altitudes of 18,000 feet and took him directly over the summit of America’s Mountain.
For the Labor Day Lift Off, Bair will keep Pikes Peak on the horizon, but he hopes people’s spirits will be lifted with the soaring balloons. “When I see the joy new riders are having, that brings joy to me too,” Bair says. “It seems like the world is angry right now. I hope [the balloon festival] will bring a little joy and happiness and better thoughts.”
More Festivities at the Labor Day Lift Off
The Labor Day Lift Off is a longtime favorite Colorado Springs tradition. It draws thousands to its early morning launches and evening balloon glows and inspires many more who see the balloons floating across the skies. “The Labor Day Lift Off has become part of the DNA of Colorado Springs,” says Mayor John Suthers. “It’s something that our citizens look forward to every year.”
This year marks the 45th year of the Labor Day Lift Off, and there are more events than ever. Besides all the balloons in traditional and special character shapes, the festivities include performances by aerial acrobats and a Battle of the Bands. UpaDowna will be hosting an SUP Social to allow people to paddleboard on Prospect Lake. The Team USA will let you meet, congratulate and get autrographs from Olympic athletes just back from Tokyo 2020. The Wings of Blue U.S. Air Force Skydiving Team will parachute in each morning. And you can catch nightly concerts by Reminiscent Souls, The Martini Shot and Mile High, the 4th Infantry Division Band of Fort Carson.
Masks and social distancing are encouraged. Organizers and leaders are pleased to host the event in its normal format once again.
“Last year we had a truncated version—we launched balloons from 10 different locations—but to have it back in Memorial Park with the bands in the evening and all the events taking place in the day, it’s an indication that we are in fact recovering,” Suthers says. “I can’t imagine any city being more economically resilient than we have been through the pandemic, and I think this weekend will be a testament to that.”
Find all schedules and details at LaborDayLiftOff.com.