RIDGWAY – Veteran hot air balloon pilot Gary Woods, owner of San Juan Balloon Adventures, said he resisted going up in a balloon for the first time with all his might.
Seconds later, he was hooked.
Woods, who several years ago started the annual Ridgway balloon festival, Balloons ‘N Varooms, and turned it over last year to the Ridgway Chamber, said he did not want to take his first ride when urged to do so by friends.
“They begged me, they pleaded with me, they coerced me to get in that balloon,” he said. “I said, no, I don’t have any interest. I’m afraid of heights, and I have no interest in a balloon, even though they look pretty.”
Finally, Woods relented.
“Ten seconds after we got off the ground, I was hooked,” he said. “Within 24 hours, I was taking lessons, and within 30 days from that moment, I ordered a brand new balloon.”
That was more than 20 years ago, and Woods has been flying ever since. He recently completed his best score ever at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which is in its 40th year and attracts hundreds of balloonists from 26 countries.
Woods placed 21st in a field of 350 balloonists, who came from Canada, Spain, Portugal, South America, Brazil, Europe, and elsewhere, he said.
But the event, which Woods said is the biggest in the U.S., and maybe even in the world, is only partly about the competition.
“For me it’s neat because I get to see people I only see once a year,” he said.
Because hot air balloons are registered aircraft, he said, their numbers are verifiable. “Out of 330 million people in the U.S. there are 5,000 [balloonists]” who are active,” Woods said. “That’s the whole United States. Think of how small a number that is. It’s special.”
To call the competition at the Albuquerque fiesta a race is a misnomer, Woods said, as the emphasis is more on navigational tasks.
During competition, all the balloons must make their ascent at least a mile away from a large, grassy landing field; the balloonists must then calculate which way the wind will take them, and, finally, get close enough to a target to throw a bag full of birdseed, streamer attached, and try to hit a bull’s-eye.
“That’s the most common competition, so you want to get just close enough,” he said. “In some cases, I’ve actually set the basket on the center of the X, maybe six inches of the ground.”
Woods is proud of his best score ever at the fiesta, but said he wants to do even better. This was his only third year competing in the event, he said, though he’s been attending for 23 years.
Officials at the Albuquerque event keep daily records on all the events, and tally them up at the end of a week, Woods said.
“It’s the highest I’ve ever gotten so far,” he said of his score, “but it’s not good enough. I have to go back and try it again.”
Woods seemed mildly disappointed that he didn’t get more in cash prizes, but the rules changed this year, he said.
Still, Woods said, he got some “nice prizes and recognition,” and his rank is listed on the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta’s website.
Woods regularly flies customers out of Ridgway, as he did on a recent early morning trip with three passengers. He demonstrated his skills as he went from dipping near the surface of Uncompahgre River “without getting their feet wet” to soaring with the eagles 1,000 feet above the valley floor.
After the flight, Woods served champagne and pastries on a picnic table to his guests, but first regaled them with several lengthy stories about the history of ballooning, and the role of the Montgolfier brothers, who attempted the first manned flight in 1783.
The brothers were paper manufacturers, and finally figured out that it was heat, not smoke, that made paper rise into the air.
The rest is history.
Woods, who got his personal and commercial hot air balloon licenses on the same day, specializes in “personalized scenic hot air balloon flights” over the Ridgway valley and looks forward to next year’s balloon fiesta in Albuquerque, not only for the competition, but for “fun flying and mass ascensions” on the weekends. To learn more about hot air ballooning, visit Woods’ website at sanjuanballoon.com, or call 970/626-5495.