Lofty memories at the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival

The people of southern Baldwin County had the opportunity this past weekend to see a colorful display of more than 50 hot air balloons flying in the sky around Foley. Many of the participating balloonists came from all over the country to fly, exhibit their planes, and meet old friends.

APR News Feature — High memories at the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival

At the start of the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival last Friday, tethered balloons were lifted from the ground shortly after sunrise. After being canceled during the pandemic last year, pilots and visitors flocked to the OWA amusement park.

“It was a wonderful turnout,” said Rachel Spear, South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce event coordinator. “It was a wonderful weekend there. The weather was perfect. “

The festival drew more fair visitors from a wide area. It also attracted fifty-five balloonists and crews from Utah. It was an opportunity for them to meet old friends and have another air adventure.

“Ballooning is like big family,” said Cheri White, a balloon pilot from Austin, Texas.

She’s been coming to the Foley Festival for the first time in 17 years. Friday she flew the balloon for Touchstone Energy.

“I’ve been around for over 40 years and I go around and you see the same people and you all have a common interest,” White said. “You all love adventure. You all love being in the air and you all look out for one another. None. You can hear the birds sing. So that I get up early in the morning and take off and fly over beautiful fields and see deer and all kinds of animals and then fly over people’s houses and they come out in their pajamas or whatever and wave to you and it’s just a really nice sport. “

White has been flying across the country and Europe for more than 40 years. She admitted that when she started she had no choice.

“Well, I didn’t really choose the sport,” she admitted. “I was 13 years old and my father started flying and my sister and I were his crew. So I grew up in sports and when I was 16 I started class and bought my first balloon when I was 19 and I just turned 60, so I’ve been doing this for a long, long time. “

“I love the aspect of flying and it’s a team sport,” said Scott Wogge of St. Louis.

He said he and his wife, Cynthia, started out as crew members in the early 1980s. Today, in addition to flying balloons, they have a shop that sells and repairs them. He said it was amazing to pilot a balloon. But being a crew member is also a challenge.

“It takes everyone to do it,” said Wogge.

“The pilot gets all the credit, but especially when it comes to ballooning, you need these other team members to drive the chase vehicle, to put it away, to wrap it up, and it’s a lot of fun getting things done as a team and you’re in control about this team and working hard but I’m really having a good time, “he said.” The whole job of the chase is to be there when you land. Does a pilot have any idea where he’s going to land, absolutely no idea when he’s taking off? They go in that general direction and our job is to be there to catch them. That’s the strategic part of it. You learn to navigate. You’re learning how to read a card in a hurry and all of the technology has made it easier, but you still need to think and think ahead. You have to outsmart the pilot. You make mistakes and laugh and end up behind closed gates and you find out how to get it out and how to contact the police or fire department and so on. “

Wogge has flown in 30 countries, Europe and Australia. He said South Baldwin was unique. When you can’t control where you are going, having the Gulf of Mexico to the south can be interesting.

“It’s very peaceful up there. We like to fly, ”said Wogge. “There is nothing like it. This is the only event I’ve flown in as soon as I get off the ground and you look south and see a large body of water. For us it is very interesting and scary when you are up there because you I know you cannot go that route. It’s the only place I’ve seen this great body of water. I’ve flown over lakes and the flooded Mississippi. 1993 in St. Louis when the Mississippi in St. Louis was four miles wide. I’ve flown over it, but never flown this close to a large body of water. “

Joel Studevant is from Kansas City, Missouri. He’s been flying this month for 40 years.

“This is a great flying area. Usually you have really good weather down here, ”he said.

Studevent is now controlling the ReMax balloon. He said the festival and the region are some of the best for balloonists.

“Lots of open space,” he said. “They have great landowners who understand the balloons. Tommy Rachel, the local balloon pilot down here, has done a great job maintaining this good relationship with the landowners. “

Studevant said it was hard to describe the feel of a balloon flight to someone who has never ascended in one.

“It’s almost impossible to describe people,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you have to do. It’s like having to describe it, I’d say it floats up there, watching the world go by beneath you. It’s very peaceful, very calm, and you’re basically just floating with it. Noises, you can hear people from the floor. The sound is very easy to transmit as nothing interferes with the sound. You’re moving with the wind so it’s a very calm and smooth flight. “

The next hot air balloon festival will take place from May 6th to 8th, 2022.