I recently returned from Albuquerque, NM and the International Balloon Fiesta. While I have attended 13 balloon fiestas over the years the last time was in 2003, this one was going to be special. I went as part of the Reach for the Stars team to debut their new special shape balloon. They are a non-profit foundation created to share ballooning with all people especially those with special needs. They have a custom wheelchair accessible basket and travel all over the country to children’s camps sharing the experience of flying with everyone.
If you are not familiar with balloon fiesta it is a 9 day event attended by 550 balloons from all over the world and it is the largest gathering of special shape balloons. It is always scheduled to begin on the first full weekend in October. Some special shape balloons are variations on the regular balloon shape with appendages added and some vary considerable from the standard shape. Our shape is a boy in a wheelchair, so it is much more than an appendage balloon and is extremely large and heavy, 130 feet tall, 175,000 cubic feet in volume and 950 lbs.
Special shape events are scheduled on Thursday and Friday but with an approaching storm front, Thursday was going to be our best chance to debut the balloon. The pilot briefing cleared the balloons to inflate and launch but to be aware that the upper wind layers were fast. With safety being a primary concern, we inflated the balloon for the crowds but did not fly that day.
The inspiration for the shape came from a drawing made by a young cancer survivor named Robbie. In his honor the balloon has been named Robbie. All went well on Thursday and Robbie was a huge success.
Friday greeted everyone with rain and lightning so ballooning was out of the question. Saturday was forecast to be windy but as we all know forecasts can be wrong and calm winds prevailed.
With controlled chaos we inflated in a much smaller space than we had during the special shape event and we were amongst all the regular fiesta flyers. Even though it was day 8 for most people and everyone was tired we all worked together to keep the balloon from laying over or snagging on other trucks or baskets in the crowded launch square. The question of flying was going to be made at the last-minute after conditions were better evaluated. Conditions remained excellent so Robbie took to the air for the first time in the USA.
It was clear from the people I talked with that Robbie was a crowd pleaser and not just as a balloon but as an inspiration that everyone can reach for their goals.