Weather grounds balloons, but doesn’t deflate spirits

Robert Stevens / Messenger Photo
Children watch in awe as a tethered Re/Max hot air balloon rises into the sky during the Saturday portion of the Salina Eyes to the Sky Balloon Festival.

SALINA—For pilots and crews who fly hot air balloons, events like the Salina Eyes to the Sky Balloon Festival are about flying, family and fun.

Although problem weather prevented free-flight of hot air balloons on both Friday and Saturday, the festival was still abuzz with members of the hot air balloon community who chose to make the best of it despite being grounded.

David and Shelena Shamo of Payson are excellent examples. The couple own and operate the airship Plaid Pixie with Shelena as the pilot and David as the crew captain. Shelena’s love for hot air balloons since her childhood was the catalyst for her to pursue her pilot’s license; and David caught the bug from Shelena after flying with her. Now the couple travels to festivals and meetups, as well as flying in different areas of the state, such as the Wasatch Front.

After hearing about the call from event organizers to cancel untethered balloon flight on Friday, Shelena and David decided they would still go through the process of inflating their balloon for display on the ground for festival attendees.

Robert Stevens / Messenger Photo
Children watch in awe as a tethered Re/Max hot air balloon rises into the sky during the Saturday portion of the Salina Eyes to the Sky Balloon Festival.

“These people came out, so let’s at least try to give them a show,” Shelena said after the announcement was made.

Shelena earned her private pilot’s license during 2020, and only 5 months after that was able to earn her commercial pilot’s license—an accomplishment that commonly takes more than a year to achieve. During the Salina festival, fellow pilots and crew members swarmed around her, congratulating her on the results of her hard work.

That’s the kind of community the Utah hot air balloon flyers are, the Shamos told the Messenger’s Managing Editor Robert Stevens, who signed up to accompany the couple for part of the event to document what hot air balloons were all about.

“That’s what I love most about flying balloons,” David said, “It’s the people. Ever since we got into it, we have been making good friends. The Utah hot air balloon community is especially close I think.”

David said friends they have made while on their hot air balloon journey have become like family, and the Messenger witnessed that first-hand as a pilots, crew members and balloon enthusiasts traded handshakes and hugs, as if the weekend in Salina was a family reunion.

Loren Thompson is a Sanpete County Planning Commission member and avid hot air balloon enthusiast that has been involved with the hobby for more than half a decade. He often helps to crew balloons at the Salina festival each year, and when his daughter rode in the Manti High School 2021 graduation parade, he set her up with a hot air balloon basket in the back of a truck so she could shoot flames from the burner into the air as a spectacle, much to the delight of the parade attendees.

“Everyone supports each other,” Thompson said. “It reminds me a little of the car show scene my dad used to take me to as a kid. Like with cars, there are different balloon manufacturers and they’ll kid each other about them. One guy here has a balloon basket with three corners, so the others kid him that he hasn’t graduated to a fourth corner yet. It’s really like a second family to a lot of us.”

But when it comes down to it, even with the tight-knit community, the actual balloon flying is still the core of it all and  the true passion for many, including Shelena, who has big dreams and goals for the future when it comes to Plaid Pixie. While she loves the camaraderie and fun that comes with hot air balloon festivals, she also intends to make a name for herself in the competitive corners of the hot air balloon world.

“My long-term goal—my dream—is to compete in and win the nationals,” Shelena said. “After that, I want to win the world championships.”