Balloon flight offers ‘total escape’

It’s a great gag line for either his role as a town councillor in his hometown of High River, Alta., or his passion for piloting hot air balloons:

Pilot Jamie Kinghorn of High River

Pilot Jamie Kinghorn of High River

It’s a great gag line for either his role as a town councillor in his hometown of High River, Alta., or his passion for piloting hot air balloons:

“I’ve got a lot of hot air in me,” laughed Jamie Kinghorn, 52, who returns for a 19th consecutive year today for the Vernon Winter Carnival and the 19th annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.

Kinghorn, who sells hydraulic hose and fittings to the oil field and agricultural industries has flown hot air balloons all over the world since picking up the sport in 1988.

With Vernon being the only winter event on a hot air balloon pilot’s schedule, Kinghorn says a trip to Carnival is a certainty on his slate.

“It’s a do-not-miss event,” said Kinghorn. “There are a great group of volunteers who put a great event together. After you’ve gone two or three times, you make friends and now coming back to Carnival is a time for getting together with friends.”

It was during the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988 that Kinghorn became fascinated with hot air balloons, having seen the gentle giants of the air adorn the Calgary skyline during the Games.

He went for his first balloon ride that summer and was given another ride for a Christmas present. After that he started working as ground crew for balloon pilots near his hometown, then began pilot training in 1989.

“In a balloon, it’s a total escape from everything,” said Kinghorn, who will be piloting his balloon, Woody, a brown with orange and yellow trim balloon, for a ninth straight year. “When you’re up there flying, there’s nothing much to think about other than the view and how much you’re enjoying the flight.

“That’s why I love coming to Vernon. The beauty of the flights. You’re able to look around, see the other balloons flying, the hills, the lakes, the snow.

“It’s just an amazing experience. I really enjoy taking first-timers who have never been up before, and watching their expressions, listening to them talk about it.”

Kinghorn will be one of 15 pilots coming primarily from B.C. and Alberta to the Balloon Fiesta which runs today through Sunday.

During their time in Vernon, pilots will compete in two events.

One is what Kinghorn calls the Hare and the Hound, where one balloon takes off about five-to-10 minutes ahead of the pack carrying a large X on board. The pilot will find a suitable place to land after about 45 minutes to an hour in the air, and will lay out the X – usually on Swan Lake.

The rest of the balloons follow, carrying little bean bags in the basket, and pilots toss them at the X. The one closest to the centre is the winner.

The other contest is called the Key Grab. A pole will be erected – again, likely somewhere around Swan Lake, said Kinghorn – and a little flag will be inserted into the top of the pole. The balloons will then try to get close enough so the pilot can grab the flag and win a cash prize, something that doesn’t happen in Vernon very often.

“Nope, I’ve never won that, never really come close,” laughed Kinghorn, who takes his balloon to an altitude of approximately 3,000 feet in Vernon (he has flown as high as 15,000 feet). “I think it’s only been won twice in Vernon. You’re talking about coming within six inches in a three-dimensional square. It’s very tough to get there.”

The Hot Air Balloon Fiesta runs Friday to Sunday.

People can not only see the balloons fill the skies, but see them up close and meet the pilots at the annual Hot Air Balloon Glow today at 6 p.m. at Polson Park. Queen Silver Star will be crowned in the park at 5 p.m.

One of the major events of opening weekend is the annual parade, which starts on 27th Street at W.L. Seaton Secondary at noon, and winds its way through the downtown core.

Carnival runs until Feb. 13. Visit www.vernonwintercarnival.com for information.