For Scott Spencer, a day in the office involves earth, wind and fire.

The hot air balloonist flies for Coca Cola and Disney. He leaves solid ground behind, catching the wind and propelling himself along with bursts from twin propane burners. His shadow glides along below rimmed by a sunny glow.

Spencer’s wife Laurie, also a balloonist, is usually not too far away. The Boise pilots, owners of Lighter than Air America, have flown over some iconic scenes: Disney Paris, the Daytona 500, David Beckham’s home soccer field in Madrid, the Golden Gate Bridge, New York City’s Central Park, the Grand Canyon and the Space Needle. Their lives, Scott says, are charmed.

The couple hauled five balloons to Walla Walla this week for the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede, which Scott is directing. This is the event’s 40th year and Scott’s 35th of attending.

On Thursday, opening morning of the four-day event, the Spencers and other balloonists gathered at Howard Tietan Park to give rides to the media. Mother Nature had other ideas. Scott briefed the balloonists. Air near the ground was calm, but that wasn’t the case aloft.

“In the Jetstream directly above us, it’s smoking,” he said.

Though a few feisty pilots took to the air, most decided to tether their balloons instead and give mini rides to the gathered journalists and public and share thoughts about ballooning.

Pilot Jeff Beebe, of Boise, said he finds freedom in flight.

“I’m a CPA in real life,” he said. “It’s a highly regulated and structured work environment. I can do this and let go.”

He invited some kids into his basket and took them up a short distance as his crew held the balloon’s lines. The children seemed wonderstruck as Beebe whooshed his twin burners and explained that each burner produces as much heat as 500 barbecues.

Many balloonists said they became attracted to ballooning much as steel finds a magnet.

“I was a 13-year-old punk, snot-nosed kid,” said Phil Archey, a Boise balloonist. “I was hanging out by the river when I heard a burner sound. I could see a little bit of color through the trees.”

He went to investigate and watched the pilot dip slightly into the river, doing a maneuver called a “splash and dash” in the balloon world. A splash and dash gone wrong is a “poke and soak.”

“I was absolutely blown away — instantly in love with ballooning,” Archey said.

Archey’s dad contacted Scott Spencer and the next weekend, the boy was crewing for the balloonist. He got his first ride after three or four months of working weekends. Archey has no regrets.

“I’m a fixed wing pilot and fly hang gliders, but nothing comes close to flying hot air balloons,” he said. “No two flights are the same.”

Scott Spencer flew for the first time as a 14-year-old and secured his own balloon a few years later. The burner was jerry-rigged and McGyvered — two Folgers coffee cans welded to the top of the frame with a Sears butane torch for a pilot light. The first time he lit the burner, he set his family’s wheat field afire.

The pilots say ballooning never grows boring. Mother Nature mixes it up and keeps balloonists alert. Wind speed varies from layer to layer. Balloonists can’t turn right or left except by finding a layer going their way. In certain places, such as Albuquerque, N.M., they can find the “box,” a unique combination of winds that allow balloons to drift one way in the cooler air near earth, rise 600 or 700 feet and catch a warmer wind blowing the other direction. The box allows pilots to launch and land in nearly the same spot.

The Spencers pilot Coca Cola’s bottle balloon, which is 154 feet tall from basket to bottle cap and has a volume of 135,000 cubic feet. The balloon’s extreme height means that different parts of the balloon poke through layers of differing wind speed and direction. The landings can be brutal when the wind picks up, Scott said, sometimes taking a half mile of horizontal movement to come to a stop. The couple also pilots the “Happiest Balloon on Earth,” Disney’s Mickey Mouse balloon.

The Spencers’ association with Disney has brought some unique experiences such as flying down into the Grand Canyon and floating over Disney Paris. After the studio released “Oz the Great and Powerful,” Laurie flew star James Franco in Hollywood shortly before the world premiere of the movie and Franco’s appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. She ducked down to make it appear as if Franco was flying the craft.

Those moments are stellar, but the Spencers and the other pilots say they would love their sport without any glitz and glam — if it was only them, the earth, wind, fire and the amazing aerial views from their hot air balloons.

“Ballooning is that Zen moment,” Archey said. “A complete balance of man’s intelligence interacting with the environment.”

The Balloon Stampede continues Saturday at Walla Walla Community College with balloon demonstrations at 4 p.m. and the Nite Glow Spectacular at 8:15 p.m. On Sunday, the 35 balloonists will launch at around 6 a.m. from Garrison Middle School, weather permitting.

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or call 541-966-0810.

     

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