Balloon rides in the Big Sky

As the sun slowly climbed over the ridges on the eastern side of the Flathead Valley at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Kevin Flanagan parked his van and trailer in an empty field off of U.S. 93.

“This part doesn’t take long at all,” he told his two passengers.

Within 20 minutes, what looked like a yellow, red and maroon tarp was inflated to a full balloon, its wicker basket bouncing off the ground and ready for liftoff.

Flanagan’s passengers, Vincent Swimley and Megan Hargrave, climbed in behind him and watched Kameron Barge, Flanagan’s newest support-van driver, release the basket as they floated up into a cloudless morning sky.

Flanagan’s balloon has become a common sight in the Flathead Valley since he moved to Kalispell a few weeks ago with his business, 2 Fly Us.

Flanagan, his wife, Debbie, and daughter, Devin, came from Phoenix, where he flew balloons around the Southwest for more than 30 years. He now plans to operate his small hot-air balloon business out of Kalispell during the summer.

The Flanagans made the move after contacting Paul Fifield, the owner of Kalispell’s last hot air balloon company, Fantasy Flights, who had hopes of retiring and traveling the country.

Flanagan said he didn’t know what he was in for when moving here.

“In all of Montana, I think this area is the most spectacular for ballooning,” he said. “I was so excited before I got here, I flew it a couple hundred times on Google Earth.”

“There’s just so much to see here,” Debbie agreed. “Between the mountains, the farms, the golden canola and the old barns. It’s almost overwhelming.”

Flanagan also plans to give lessons to potential balloonists. He already has a handful of students en route from Phoenix to finish their 10-day training period with Flanagan in Kalispell.

The balloon only flies twice a day, at sunrise and sunset. The set times provide plenty of photography opportunities but are primarily scheduled for safety.

The cool winds coming out of the mountains at dusk and dawn make manuevering easier. During the day, Flanagan said, the sun heats the valley unevenly, creating thermals that could be difficult to control.

“It’s just like playing poker with Mother Nature,” Flanagan said. “She’s the dealer and we have to play with what she gives us.”

Flanagan has flown all over the world: France, Switzerland, the Grand Canyon and more. His favorite place to balloon, he said, was Fiji, where his flight seemed to jump through time.

“That was an amazing experience because we took off from a village that only had electricity for six years,” Flanagan said. “We followed a river valley for a while, then land on the beach next to a five-star hotel and it was just like flying right into the new millennium.”

The craze started 30 years ago, Flanagan said, when he was a teenager driving racecars in a low, cutthroat division. But after looking at his potential future through one of the top drivers in the division, he decided the car had to go. He compared it to breaking up with a girl he still loved.

“I saw he was living in a rundown house and his kids needed clothes but you’d open the garage and there’s $300,000 worth of car parts,” Flanagan said. “I kind of saw it as an addiction after that.”

Flanagan made a spontaneous trade-in after meeting a man who felt the same way about selling his hot air balloon — a cheaper, safer hobby that eventually led to a lifelong career and an introduction to his wife.

Swimley and Hargrave, both new to balloon travel, took Tuesday’s trip as a surprise gift for Hargrave’s birthday.

“I thought it would be a lot more like an airplane ride with some turbulance,” Swimley said. “But it was really smooth.”

Hargrave confirmed that the gift was well received.

“I’m ready to go again right now,” Hargrave said after touching down. “I wasn’t ready for it to be over.”

But the flight wasn’t the only surprise: Before descending into an unsuspecting landowner’s lot north of Kalispell, Swimley silently revealed an engagement ring to Hargrave. She said yes.

To find more about 2 Fly Us, visit www.phoenixballoonflights.com/montana, or call Flanagan at (406) 755-4172.

LET THE ADVENTURE BEGINTM