Balloons compete in championship

By Leo Honeycutt

LSN STAFF WRITER

BATON ROUGE – The alarm clangs to life at 4:30 a.m., waking the dead for miles around.

New Iberia hot-air balloon pilot Ted Habetz and his balloon crew don’t waste a second hitting the snooze, they already smell the aroma of coffee and propane; coffee for the body, propane for the balloon. As Ol’ Sol crowns the eastern horizon, they’ve got to have that seven-story hot air behemoth up and ready to launch. Habetz and gang are in training for this weekend’s Louisiana State Hot Air Balloon Championship in Baton Rouge. To win, he’ll have to beat 40 other pilots from around the country, swooping down together on targets at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. That’s tricky because with practically no directional control, the gentle giants bump into each other as they float just over the heads of hundreds of shutter-clicking spectators. Winds control everything and a good pilot has to be a weather vane.

Habetz laughs, “I’ve taken up Navy jet pilots and they’re shocked at how even subtle winds affect balloons, how you can just float.” Navy pilots are used to rocketing at 1,000 mph. Balloons scream along at breakneck speeds approaching 10 mph, forcing passengers to stop and smell the treetops. Habetz’ wife bought him a balloon ride for their anniversary 17 years ago and he’s been high on hot air ever since. “There’s no such thing as a bad flight. Even people who are afraid of heights, once they realize it doesn’t bounce around like a plane, they love it.” Habetz ground crew is all female, chasing below in a pickup and trailer with an eye on the sky. “The most valuable thing in ballooning,” quips Habetz, “is someone who knows how to back a trailer.”

The sun’s heat whips up thermals into vortices of wind by 8:00 a.m. What is breezy on the ground is usually swift rivers of air as little as 100 feet up, pushing seven-story pieces of inflated fabric rapidly across fields and forests. It’s quiet except for occasional propane blasts of 32 million BTU. This allows pilot and passengers to sneak up on horses and cows grazing in pastures, catch their reflection in ponds and lakes, hear the sounds of woods waking up.

“There’s just a magic to it,” says pilot Lamar Poole who grew up in Jonesville watching cropdusters. “Even flying at low altitude in a small plane won’t give you the same sensation. In a balloon, you’re as free as a bird looking down, flying from treetop to treetop, suspended in mid-air.”

Poole and Habetz are vying for state champion pilot Friday through Sunday, Aug. 7-9, at the free event in Baton Rouge. Nearly 60,000 are expected over three days to watch and photograph 40 balloons gliding over their heads, weather permitting. Every seat on the field is front row. Both Friday and Saturday nights, those same balloons return for “balloon glows,” lighting up the night sky using their propane burners to create the effect of 90,000 cubic foot multi-colored light bulbs. Also, the U.S. Army’s Black Daggers precision skydiving team dive from 2,000 feet to a mark on the field one-foot square. They jump again at night wearing sparklers. Both nights are capped off with fireworks set to music.

Live bands play afternoons and night. Admission and parking are free. Bring cameras, lawn chairs and blankets but no ice chests. Food and gift vendors will be onsite. For directions, times and schedule, log on to www.laballooning.com.

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