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|| News Item: Posted 2008-12-02

Flame Out
By Jared Dort, The Sun

Photo by Jared Dort / The Sun

Photo by Jared Dort / The Sun

A passenger aboard the United Van Lines Balloon owned by pilot Roy Caton and the ground crew prepare to take off at West Wetlands Park in Yuma.
Kenny Loggins said it best, "Keep the Fire Burning."

So the last words you want to hear during a hot air balloon ride is something to the contrary.

I've never been in a hot air balloon before. To be honest, I never really wanted to. Coming from one of the balloon capitals of the world, Sedona, I've seen plenty of them flying through red-rock country. Riding in the oldest form of air transportation never interested me.

There was this time back in 2001 when a balloon floated by my apartment window - the second floor. I grabbed my camera and chased it down the street, into someone's backyard.

I remembered that story shortly after my hot air balloon took off November 12th.

My a.m. assignment was a media balloon ride, put on by the organizers of the Colorado River Crossing Balloon Festival to hype the upcoming extravaganza for the following weekend. I flew with Fred Bookwalter of Tranquil Sensations, a guy named Joe and the crew from KYMA-TV.

I didn't even know we left the ground at Kennedy Park, our meeting place. And I was late, so I had to sprint to the balloon from the parking lot.

We toured the southern part of Yuma at sunrise, and it was awesome. The way the golden light lit up the Marine Corps Air Station while flying at 2,000 feet was incredible. You couldn't even tell you were in a balloon, floating across the landscape.

It was crazy.

We spent close to 45 minutes in the air, flying over sheep, pigeons at Circle K, fields and the airport. Got plenty of aerial shots of Yuma during that time, something I've never done before.

The rest of the ballooners were ahead of our group and most of them were landing. Bookwalter decided it was time to do the same. We descended from our 3,000-foot range.

Then, those fateful words first-time balloon riders don't want to hear.

"Oh (insert expletive), the flame went out."

That flame is kind of important. It produces the hot air that makes the balloon rise and fall, and keeps those in the wicker basket comfortable. When that goes out, the pilot has very little control. Luckily, very little can be just enough.

With no flame, we in the wicker basket started to feel very uncomfortable, and our slow descent turned into a crash landing. Bookwalter's no rookie. He's flown for 13 years, so he knew how to handle the situation. This has happened before.

He tugged a few ropes and kept our crash impact very low. At the time we were hovering over an orange grove. We smashed into a tree, the ground and a barbed-wire fence before coming to a stop. Then we went up again, then came down again.

It was kind of like a car accident, but continuous. Our basket was dragged across the landscape we once flew over. We were all beat into the ground, each other.

Photo by Jared Dort / The Sun

Photo by Jared Dort / The Sun

Hot air balloon pilot Fred Bookwalter gets on the horn after making a crash landing in a field south of Yuma with photographer Jared Dort in the balloon with him.
Bookwalter got the flame back and we went up one last time, to land. The landing on the third go-around was pretty nice. You could see why people do this kind of thing for fun.

I felt pretty rough the next day, kind of like James "Lights Out" Toney blasted my kidneys like 30 times. I never felt my life was in danger though, and that's kudos to Bookwalter.

The chase car showed up close to 15 minutes after the landing to pick us up, and the balloon. I went back to work.

It was crazy.

KYMA, an NBC affiliate, aired the crash. The Arizona Republic called me for an interview and ran a story. The Today Show even aired it. I still haven't seen the video.

The next weekend I covered the Balloon Festival and that's easily one of my top-five assignments since coming to Yuma. More than 30 balloons came to town and took off early Saturday morning. That night was the Balloon Glow, a nighttime event where the balloons are lit by the flame. Awesome.

I've been asked a couple times if I'd ever go up in a balloon again.

"Not really. Unless it was with Fred Bookwalter," I say.

That response seems pretty ridiculous, except for the fact I know what Fred can do during the worst of times.

I'm always trying to plan and control things when I'm on an assignment and sometimes you just can't. I've learned that sometimes you just have to grab on to the wicker basket and enjoy the ride.

(Jared Dort is a staff photographer for the Yuma Sun in the beautiful, and often hot, desert southwest. He likes to cook steak and watch Star Wars on his days off with his kids. You can view more of his work at and on this website

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