By Don McAlavy: Local Columnist
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will be published in next Sunday’s Lifestyles section.
Clovis is not the best place to have a hot air balloon fiesta, but that is just what Clovis did from 1980 through 1986. You never know what the wind will do. This exciting event was called Clovis
Pioneer Days Balloon Fiesta. The first one was from June 5-7 in 1980. This is the story told by our daughter, Kim McAlavy Siewert, in a thrilling balloon ride at this event in 1982.
“I was involved in the Air Force Junior ROTC in my sophomore year at Clovis High School where Major E. Ray Leomazzi was in charge. In 1981, I was helping direct traffic for parking and I got on a balloon chase crew, headed down, in a pickup, on dirt roads chasing a particular balloon.
“By 1982 I was a cadet officer and was assigned a balloon crew member and would get to fly! I was excited about flying. At that time I was still reaching for the stars in hopes of being an astronaut. So in my senior year I had to change my aeronautical dreams to heroic dreams in medicine. My horrible eye sight of about 20/600 in each eye made me realize that they would never let me fly. It is ironic at this time that I reflect on this because I recently realized how the hand of God has been working in my entire life leading me toward mission work in medicine. (I go to the Yucatan on a Mission trip this January with my church group.)
It’s even more ironic that the name of the balloon was ‘Crossroads,’ as it was the crossroad of my life.
“I was excited and nervous about my impending flight on the balloon. I was nervous because of the high winds. We were one of only three balloons that went up that day. We were on the backside of Clovis High Plains Hospital west of town and would have to clear the hospital and wires quickly before the winds could drag us into them. There was the pilot, myself and a 10- or 11-year-old youngster going up. We had a lot of people around us to hold the gondola down. The pilot was getting the balloon ready for a vertical launch, not just a gentle lifting and floating. My excitement mounted as the adrenaline pumped through my rapidly beating heart. I expected my stomach to drop like it does on all the carnival rides that I loved so much.
“The pilot kept saying ‘hold us down, hold us down,’ until he had judged we were ready for lift off with sufficient super-heated air in the balloon. I felt as if we should have a parachute. I felt very unattached with nothing to hold on to but the edge of the basket. Then the pilot yelled ‘let her go, let her go.’ The balloon soared straight up. I realized as we shot upwards that I did not have the feeling of dropping my stomach on the floor. I was in awe as I looked down over the edge of the basket. We weren’t leaving the earth; it felt as if the earth left us. We were 100 feet in the air in a second flat with plenty of clearance from the wires, light poles and the hospital. It was the strangest sensation to feel like we were not moving at all; that the scenery moved around, below and above us.
“The people, cars and roads quickly miniaturized. We saw the chase crew heading for the truck and soon barreling down the dirt roads after us. We quickly lost sight of them as the wind carried us across the morning sky in a northeasterly direction. We changed our altitude many times. We got close to the top of some brush just to see if we could touch the bottom of the basket with it. About that time I started to worry about the landing. The young boy with us was scared when we got close to the ground as we were moving at a good clip of 30 mph. I had a gentle landing in mind of slowly touching the ground, and softly landing in one spot, like at the end of the Wizard of Oz.
“So much for fairy tales. I found out it was going to be a controlled crash. We did go over a small lake and skimmed about three feet above the water. The closer we were to the ground the faster the balloon appeared to be traveling. It had been a windy morning and the ground seemed to be moving very fast below us.
“When the pilot decided it was time to land we attempted to visualize the chase crew. I know we saw vehicles moving down the dirt roads but I did not know if they were our chase crew or not. Where was the chase crew and where were we? Were we to fall straight down and crash?”
Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: