Pioneer Days celebration takes to the skies

Airabelle the Cow, a heifer-shaped balloon sponsored by the Southwest Dairy Farmers, will be one of many balloons launching Saturday.

By Janet Bresenham

When 31 hot air balloons get ready to launch from Clovis on Saturday morning, John Sando hopes he will be aboard a special one named “The Desert Dancer.”
“That would be awesome,” the Clovis teen said. “I’m like a military brat, so I’ve flown in a lot of things, but not a hot air balloon. It’s not as noisy as an airplane and it’s more of a natural thing because it’s not run by an engine. It just kind of goes up and it’s kind of peaceful up there, I’ve heard. It’s open up, too, so you can feel the air.”
This weekend marks the first time Clovis’ annual Pioneer Days celebration has featured hot air balloons since the tradition ended its 1980-87 run.
For Sando, it means he will have a second chance to get his first ride as part of a Make-A-Wish gift from Connie Pohlmeyer, a balloon pilot who is a nurse in Albuquerque. Sando describes her simply as “super.”
But the surprise of a promised balloon launch earlier this year didn’t take off as planned.
“We went to Greene Acres Park and tried and tried, but it was just too windy,” Sando said.
Sando knows about second chances. The 2002 Clovis High School graduate discovered a suspicious lump in his neck two days before his 18th birthday last Sept. 24.
“A couple of weeks later, I had my first surgery in Clovis,” Sando said. “They sent my tumor all over the country and finally found out what it was at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.”
When he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, his doctor sent him to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he underwent a second surgery just six weeks after the first surgery.
Meanwhile, the fun for a few area residents begins early this morning, when Clovis Mayor David Lansford plans to ride in a hot air balloon that will launch from the area around Plains Regional Medical Center, at around the same time that two balloons lift off at Cannon Air Force Base carrying 27th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Robert “Rowdy” Yates and Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega.
The anticipated big launches for the full 31 hot air balloons should go off around 6 a.m. Saturday and Sunday from the west side of the Clovis hospital, where there also will be a field designated for parking, according to event co-chair Paul Blair of Portales.
This week’s wild weather could bode well for early morning balloon launching.
“Actually, when there are late afternoon thunderstorms, it tends to be nice and calm in the mornings,” Blair said. “Of course, this is a weather-dependent event. The weather is the one thing we can’t control.”
While rain and too much wind would deter a launch either day, where the wind blows will determine the best viewing areas for the ascension and flight of the hot air balloons in Clovis.
“It really depends on the wind,” Blair said. “Typically, the wind will take balloons east across town. But probably what’s best is to see what direction the wind is blowing when the balloons launch because that’s the direction they’re going to go.”
In the face of eastern New Mexico’s unpredictable weather, organizers remain optimistic that the balloons will be able to launch during the available windows Saturday and Sunday morning, but they know those are the only chances for a Pioneer Days weekend launch.
“It’s a risk worth taking,” said Ernie Kos, executive director of the Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce.