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With Anderson aloft

Jul 20, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

My first balloon flight was also my roughest

I've been lucky enough to fly in a hot-air balloon about 25 times in the years since the Riverton Rendezvous balloon rally began in 1981, but the first one was the roughest.

The guest celebrity that first year was Maxie Anderson. A couple of years earlier he had been part of the three-man crew that gained world attention by becoming the first balloonists to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

Better yet, Anderson had once lived in Riverton, kicking around the Gas Hills looking for uranium just like a thousand other people did after the big Lucky Mc strike in 1953. That had been many years before, but we could still claim some local ties to him.

The Ranger initiated the balloon rally thanks to my brother George's acquaintance with a balloonist who flew a balloon owned by the Billings radio station where George worked as a 23-year-old disc jockey that summer. The pilot's name was Tom Barrow, and he knew Maxie Anderson. The invitation was extended, and the tradition of the guest celebrity at Riverton Rendezvous was born.

The Ranger sponsored Anderson's balloon, and at age 20 I was the reporter/photographer assigned to fly with him that Saturday morning.

Compared to the sophisticated, detail-oriented, technology-reliant balloonists of today, Anderson's approach to the sport was ... hmmm, what's the word I'm after? Let's just say he was a rugged individualist when it came to flying a hot-air balloon.

Anderson didn't have a lot of patience for the ground crew trying to control the order of balloon launches, and he wasn't used to flying in a rally setting. There were just nine balloons that first year, as I recall, but that still was more than he liked having around.

He was blind in one eye thanks to some long-ago injury, and I was a bit worried to see that he had a slight tremor in his hands as he hooked up the balloon basket to the envelope and tested his propane burner.

But he was one of the most experienced balloonists in the country in his time, and he had done it his way. He also was a charming, gregarious, charismatic man who gave the impression that his balloon was his baby. He knew all its quirks and could fly with the best in the business. He'd proved that over the ocean in the big, three-man, open-air rig that set the record.

So up we went, Anderson rapping his knuckles on the gauges of his fuel tanks and telling me he liked to look for the "fastest piece of air" he could find.

We zipped away from the launch field quickly, and he caught an eastward current that is familiar to balloon rally pilots and spectators. We flew past Riverton toward the rocky sagebrush country east of town.

I enjoyed talking with him along the way. He kept up an amusing, non-stop patter as we drifted, commenting freely on the other pilots and the nightlife in Riverton 25 years earlier.

He didn't want to fly past the approaching cliffs, so he said he was going to land immediately. I looked to the ground and saw that our chase crew was nowhere in sight. Anderson had kept in radio contact, and we were far ahead of the chase vehicle.

That didn't faze him. He pulled the so-called rip cord and began venting hot air from the balloon. We descended quickly, and he pointed out a couple of rabbits bounding away as the ground neared.

"Now flex your knees," he said. "We're going to bump!"Oh, we bumped all right.

The basket hit the ground hard, and everything in the basket bounced. In particular, a pair of binoculars and some sunglasses of Anderson's flew out to the ground. We bounced and hit again, hard, this time at an angle. The balloon dragged us through about 50 more yards of sagebrush, cactus, rocks and anthills before we finally came to rest, the basket on its side, the great Maxie Anderson lying on top of me -- laughing.

"That was fun!" he whooped.

We scrambled to our feet as the balloon deflated, doing our best to keep the fabric from getting too roughed up by the terrain until the chase crew arrived a few minutes later.

"Just brush the ants off as you see them," he instructed us as we bagged the balloon.

Maxie Anderson died a couple of years after that, killed in a ballooning accident in Europe.

There have been 30 Rendezvous balloon rallies since then, and I've gone aloft during most of them through our Ranger sponsorship each year. Maybe I'll get a chance this Saturday or Sunday.

No other flight can compare to that one, though.

The ultra-trained balloonists today might scowl, cringe or both at the way Anderson went about his ballooning business, but he's the one who crossed the pond, not them.

I might not have picked those particular circumstances as my introduction to ballooning, but in the three decades since I've come to realize this about Maxie Anderson: He was right all along. That flight was fun, cactus needles and all.

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