They were beautiful and electric. Checkered patches of canary yellow and royal blue. Patriotic reds, blues and whites. An inflatable replica of the pilgrims’ ship on one, a bright mixture of Santa Fe colors on another. All on a thin material inflated by propane-heated air and tethered to a wicker-like basket. A basket we were supposed to ride in.
We were promised a ride on Friday morning. That’s why we set our alarms for 4 a.m. (and crawled out of bed around 4:45 a.m.) Unfortunately, some bastardly mesoscale convective system near Hillsboro somehow threatened to detonate the 50-pound propane bomb to which we’d be attached, so Debby Standefer, marketing director of this weekend’s D/FW Summer Balloon Classic that wraps up today, said that taking flight was “not a good idea.” (Which did not stop us from procuring this slide show.)
Besides members of the media, about 50 people congregated under the big white tent at Mid-Way Airport in Midlothian before the sun showed itself Friday. Some wore camouflaged uniforms; others wore airbrushed, balloon-themed T-shirts, but most wore some sort of advertising. Yes, the corporate balloons were there with their corporate pilots, in their corporate uniforms (ReMax, Mayflower, Curves, Texas Propane Gas Association), but the amateurs were shilling too. They publicized their own balloon teams on embroidered hats, stenciled shirts and trading cards. (Instead of stats, the cards' backsides featured “Old Balloonists Proverbs,” some biographical info and the “Balloonists Prayer.”
But only the corporate rides soared.
“There’s an old saying that goes, ‘I’d rather be on the ground wishing I was in the air than in the air wishing I was on the ground,’” Steve Lombardi, ReMax’s aviation director, told Unfair Park. “There are days that you got to fly, especially when you do it commercially, like I do. You’ve got to get that logo up for your sponsor and get it in front of the crowd. If I was doing it just as a sport balloonist, I wouldn’t really be doing it.”
True to his word, Lombardi inflated the 42,000 cubic foot ReMax balloon (that’s 42,000 soccer balls) and waved the company’s flag. During set up, we got a sneak at balloonist humor, when a ReMax crew member told a Curves crew member, “We can probably keep it up longer,” to which the Curve pilot responded, “I don’t want to know about your personal life.” That was by far the best joke we heard. Seriously.
But they weren’t in Waxahachie for stand-up comedy. They were there to do some ballooning.
None more so than four-time national ballooning champ, Joe Heartsill. “When you’re in a race with him,” says Tim Durham, “everybody’s looking for second place.” When asked about the qualities that make Heartsill such an intimidating pilot, Durham quickly turned the tables: “What makes Tiger Woods so good?”
Actually, we were in the midst of some pretty exclusive ballooning company. Earlier this year at the Houston festival, Durham won the race and earned a place in this year’s National Championship being held in Anderson, S.C. He’s the odds-on favorite to take home this year’s “Rookie of the Year” award. (Durham happens to be a white-mustachioed, retired airline pilot.) Not only that, but Sam Edwards (who offered to cook breakfast for everyone back at the hotel), the oldest living pilot in Texas at 73, was on the grounds.
But thanks to some thermals and gusty conditions, that’s where these pilots’ baskets remained: grounded. “If there’s buzzards flyin’, that means I won’t be,” Durham said. “They ride the thermals so they don’t have to flap their wings.”
Thermals send balloons sailing into the stratosphere, but if you let out too much hot air to lower the balloon there’s a chance you could come off the thermal. If that happens, the pilot may not be able to reheat the balloon in time. Instead, the basket simply falls, falls, falls, splat.
That’s why only one sport balloon took flight Friday. Instead, they sat around and gossiped with old friends about anything balloon-related. The Edwards’ 13-year-old grandson recently inflated, flew and landed a balloon all by his lonesome. His grandparents beamed. There was some gentle boasting, and a little one-upmanship -- Durham talked of taking two Russian cosmonauts up in his basket, to which Edwards countered, “All I’ve got are astronauts.”
And there were more jokes: “I’ve got a bag balloon. It stays in the bag most of the time.” Some spoke of how to write-off the whole ballooning experience (just get the cheapest ad in the Yellow Pages).
Others just wanted to be up there, where there’s no noise and no wind (you’re floating with the wind so you can’t feel the wind), and everything’s just so, so … nice.
“Airplanes are made for going places,” says Lombardi, “and balloons are made for just getting away.”
Yes, for now everything is chummy at the Summer Balloon Classic. But as the young gun, Durham, looks to knock the king, Heartsill, off his throne, who’s to say how bloody, how violent, how vicious … oh, I can’t do. Everyone will be nice. Everyone will be safe. Just go see the pretty balloons before they float away tonight. --Spencer Campbell (and Merritt Martin)