'It was a blast': Walla Walla Balloon Stampede pilots paint the sky (2024)

The roar of propane burners echoed through the Valley Thursday, May 11, as hot air balloonists from across the United States took off for the 47th annual Walla Walla Balloon Stampede.

At the crack of dawn, preparations for inflating their balloons began at Howard-Tietan park, with dozens of pilots and crew members greeting each other with warm embraces and beaming smiles, fostering the sense of camaraderie within the hot air ballooning community.

After a quick briefing about the weather and the do's and don'ts at the event, groups of people meandered across the dewy grass to lay out tarps and pull out their baskets.

Working as teams, people seamlessly put the balloons together, tying knots, buckling clips and setting equipment into place.

At long last, the baskets were set upright, the propane burners ignited, and a comfortable wave of heat came from overhead as the balloons inflated.

Willy Wonka and the Choclate Factory's "I've Got a Golden Ticket," played over speakers as colorful hot air balloons lifted off the ground.

Freedom Flight Inc.

The Freedom Flight balloon soared 1,000 feet above Walla Walla and the quilted fields of the Palouse were visible for miles.

Luke Cesnik, chief hot air balloon pilot for Freedom Flight, said if he could, he would always be in the air.

"I'll fly anything I can get my hands on," Cesnik said. "I've been that way since I was 15."

Raised in St. Cloud, Minn., Cesnik said he recalls riding his bicycle to the airport to observe planes taking off and landing. The experience inspired him to save up for flying lessons, and by the age of 16, he achieved his goal of flying solo. Later on, Cesnik enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

He said he decided to add hot air balloon pilot to his resume when he took a flight in 1990. He has been flying since and joined Freedom Flight as a volunteer pilot.

Freedom Flight is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that flies hot air balloons to support the Prisoner of War, POW, and the Missing in Action, MIA, issues. All pilots and crew members are unpaid volunteers who use the hot air balloons to promote awareness for POW and MIA issues around the world. Donations can be made at freedomflight.org.

Cesnik said Freedom Flight is doing anywhere from 40 to 50 events a year between nine volunteer pilots and four balloons.

Soft landing

Brushing the tops of trees, the balloon descended gently into the middle of a soccer field at the Mill Creek Sportplex. A lone soccer player stopped practicing to watch the basket lightly bounce across the ground and then come to a stop.

The balloon was disassembled and put back into a trailer and Cesnik gathered passengers, crew and volunteers to give a brief history of hot air balloon flight.

At the end of the lecture, the crew members of Freedom Flight came together and recited "The Balloonists Prayer," which is commonly said after a safe flight.

"The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter and gently set you back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth."

Then everyone shared a champagne toast.

"This is Freedom Flight the POW/MIA hot air ballooning team," Cesnik said. "Today we flew in freedom for the over 80,000 people who we represent when we fly this balloon and all the family members that are still waiting. I propose a toast that the Prisoners of War and the Missing in Action all be accounted for. That the families get closure, and we continue to fly in peace."

Chris Gardner has been volunteering with Walla Walla Balloon Stampede for more than 10 years. She helps get the balloons inflated and helps take them apart when they land.

Gardner said working with hot air balloons is well worth an early start to the day, many times before the sun rises.

"We're addicted to hot air ballooning," Gardner said. "It's amazing to watch them float up and away."

Gardner's daughter, Ashley, said although her mom made her participate as a ground crew member, she reaped some of the benefits of volunteering such as missing school and eventually taking a flight. She said her first flight had a "bit of a bumpy landing," but it hasn't deterred her from going back up.

Recalling her daughter's first ride, Chris Gardner said, "I kept thinking she's OK because there's sort of a 'there's a spider scream,' a 'this is fun-but-scary scream' and there's an 'absolute terror scream,' Gardner said. "Hers was just pure joy."

Staff Sgt. Kyle Kuiawa had never been in a hot air balloon before. His initial flight had been canceled but he happened to walk past Freedom Flight and was invited to go up, which was seemingly perfect timing.

Despite being 1,000 feet above ground level, he described the experience as peaceful.

"Would I do it again," Kuiawa asked. "Definitely. It was a blast."

'It was a blast': Walla Walla Balloon Stampede pilots paint the sky (2024)

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