| COMMUNITY |
Kelli Cook began packing her hot air balloon after landing in field in western Nebraska. She soon noticed a five-year old boy running across the field. She looked around to see where he came from and spotted his grandmother parked on the side of the road. When he reached her, the boy asked Cook to autograph his ballooning program. As Cook signed the little boy’s program, she was reminded of one of many reasons she loves ballooning and how “unbelievably welcoming” the western Nebraska community has been to her and her fellow pilots.
“He was so precious,” she said. “It was so adorable to see him running toward me.”
Cook’s love of ballooning began eight years ago while living in Houston, Texas. A friend asked if she wanted to crew a hot air balloon.
“From the first moment I put hands on it, I was addicted,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Cook was a regular on the crew. She soon joined a group of active pilots in Longview, Texas, home of the Great Texas Balloon race.
“My girlfriend and I were making weekend trips to help crew for them,” she said.
Cook considers it an incredible privilege to call some of the best pilots in the world her friends. With the majority of events canceled this summer, Cook was among a group of pilots from the Denver, Colorado area who blazed their own trail. They picked places they wanted to fly and spent the summer making the best of it.
“We’ve been able to come together and share adventure after adventure on one of the best summers of flying I’ve ever had,” she said.
They flew at several locations, including Kanab, Utah, Crested Butte, Colorado, and the Stratobowl in Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota. The Old West Balloon Fest in western Nebraska was the first real event the group participated in. They don’t plan on stopping. Cook has several other events she will attend this year, including a planned adventure flight this winter in Colorado Springs, which she is looking forward to because viewing the snow on the ground from the air gives another beautiful perspective and adds to her love of ballooning.
Ultimately, it’s all about the views, she said.
“You get to see it from a balloon differently,” she said. “That view is always better.”
The view is one of the reasons Cook keeps returning to Scottsbluff. Pilots don’t plan to fly directly over the Scotts Bluff National Monument, but Cook gets to see the entire bluffs from a perspective few will ever experience.
“It’s absolutely stunning,” she said.
Cook said her friend, Colleen Johnson, did an “amazing job” of resurrecting the balloon fest in Scottsbluff. Johnson saw the potential of reviving the event, which saw its last balloons rise over the valley 30 years before. In a few short years, Johnson had gathered top balloonists to the festival and was awarded for her hard work with the national championship.
Cook enjoys supporting her friend and being able to fly over what she believes is a beautiful area, but it is the community that keeps her coming back to an event she views as getting better each year.
“The community there is super receptive to us and they are having just as much fun chasing us,” she said. “They love talking to us and we love talking to them.”
In 2014, Cook generated enough points to travel to Leszno, Poland to participate in the first FAI Women’s World Hot Air Balloon Championship. At the time, she was number three on the list and qualified for the event, but thus far, no American woman has ranked high enough to be part of the world team.
Cook enjoys the thrill of competition, having competed in several sports her entire life, but she understands it’s not for everyone.
“Some people enjoy being competitive and some people enjoy going out and throwing the ball around for fun,” she said. “You will find competitors who have no interest in being ride operators and vice versa.”
Ballooning is also a form of therapy for cook. As she gently lifts off the surface of the Earth, nothing else matters as she leaves her worries behind and watches the world from above.
“It’s my stress reliever and attitude adjustment through altitude,” she said. “It gives you a perspective you don’t get from an airplane or top of a mountain.”
Cook doesn’t often feel the wind or breeze while in the air because she becomes a part of it. She sees the opportunity to be a balloonist as “sheer magic” and often expresses to others how wonderful ballooning can be.
Ultimately, Cook flies for herself because it makes her happy. When she starts to get a little “cranky,” her friends tell her to take to the air.
“It’s cheaper than therapy,” she said. “Ground sickness is cured by altitude therapy.”
Cook is among the growing number of women in the sport, which has seen tremendous growth over the past decade. She said there is no gender advantage in the sport and most pilots want to improve their skills and are always willing to help others. She credits the people she connected with in providing the opportunity to learn from them and develop her skills from some of the best pilots in the world.
“It’s the men who encouraged me, supported me, and taught me,” she said.
Cook is known to gather friends before sunrise to take flight. One person cannot get all the equipment in place and get it off the ground. Her crew of friends are always available to prepare and take one more flight.
During competitions, however, Cook prefers to have two experienced people with her who have worked with her before. At festivals, she can pull two or three people out of the crowd to complement her crew and teach them what they need to know in order to be successful in one of the simplest forms of aviation.
Although the 2020 Old West Balloon Fest in western Nebraska was to hold the national championships this year, it was postponed due to the coronavirus. It was also not an official event, but pilots could still make runs to earn points toward the national eligibility list.
At the Old West Balloon Fest, Cook was considered a minority in the field, but only in the type of balloon she flew, which is the type of balloon people think of when they see a hot air balloon. Most of the field this year was full of racers, balloons that are shaped more like a football.
During competitions, the racers have an advantage in their aerodynamic design, allowing them to ascend and descend at twice the speed of a normal-shaped balloon.
“A ‘football’ can make two to three corrections where I can only make one to two,” she said. “I have to plan further ahead to make sure I am holding a line to the target.”
Cook said the real advantage comes in knowing the different “layers” of air and a pilot’s ability to quickly move in and out of the layers.
Still, the responsiveness of the aircraft is only as good as the person piloting, she said. Cook knows she can only control the layer of wind she is in as she moves farther up into the atmosphere. The winds constantly change.
“The wind you launched in probably isn’t the same when you land,” she said. “The strategy is finding those layers and moving in and out of them in the right amount of time to attack the target.”
Cook is not a professional competitor, but does compete in several events each year. Sometimes, her strategy doesn’t pay off. She gets frustrated by bad shots and vows to do better. When the good shots land and she hits her target, she is rewarded with a rush of adrenaline reminding her that hard work and determination helped her successfully steer a, technically, unsteerable balloon to a target.
“I’ve been flying in competitions for eight years,” she said. “When I throw a marker and hit a target, I scream like a girl every time.”
Communities like western Nebraska is only one part of why she loves ballooning. She has met many people in the area and has made new friends, including members of the Gering Fire Department, who sometimes come crew for her.
She knows her actions may inspire that little boy or firefighter to become the next pilot. Cook remembers her first experience when she was seven-years old. She looked up to the sky and saw a Famous Footwear shoe-shaped balloon floating over her neighborhood. The pilot landed in the elementary school parking lot two blocks from her house. He let 40 youth stand under his balloon and answered their questions.
“Looking back on it now, who knows who he could have inspired,” she said. “I still remember that guy.”
For many people, seeing a hot air balloon is something seen from afar. It’s why Cook loves events like the Old West Balloon Fest where she gets to interact with people. She knows the feeling and the inspiration that comes with being close to a balloon.
“When you put your hands on this gentle giant, it’s magical,” she said.
The information in this article has been compiled from:
Personal interviews with Kelli Cook and Colleen Johnson during the Old West Balloon Fest in Aug 2020.