Volunteers called vital to making hot-air balloon contest a success

The fourth weekend in September has been circled on Florida hot-air balloon pilot Ben Drennan’s calendar for a year.

Drennan, who started his ballooning journey as a volunteer crew member at the age of 12, was one of 30-plus pilots who flew in last year’s ballooning event in Gonzales.

The hospitality and competition drew him back to the state where his mom and dad met and married.

He’s hoping Ascension Parish residents will get the ballooning fever during the Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championship set for Sept. 26 through Sept. 28 at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

Event organizer Brad Walker and local pilot Leslie Jeansonne are counting on dozens of volunteers to help with several tasks throughout the three-day balloon festival and competition.

Walker said volunteers are needed to do everything from assisting with parking cars to helping pilots navigate the back roads of Ascension Parish.

Jeansonne said pilots are counting on the generosity of local residents and the popularity of last year’s balloon festival to draw residents to help fill balloon crew spots.

The Ascension Festival and Cultural council, led by Walker, organized last year’s festival after the Louisiana Ballooning Foundation canceled its annual event.

Organizers say this year’s event will include more than 40 balloons piloted by some of the country’s best pilots.

In order for the pilots to compete in planned early morning and evening competitions, volunteers are needed to help with the towering balloons.

“Volunteers and crew are at the very heart of what we do; without them we do not get to fly and a festival like this one does not happen,” Drennan said.

The crew helps to assemble the balloon and prepare it for inflation, he said. During the process of hot inflation, when the burners are lit and the balloon is brought upright, crew members help keep the balloon under control and keep it from being damaged by the flame.

But the job doesn’t end there, he said. Crew members assist the passengers in getting into the basket and helping the pilot with any last-minute checks or procedures before take off.

“Perhaps their most important task comes after the balloon has left the ground,” he said.

The crew is often referred to as the chase crew, because members literally chase after the balloon once it is airborne. Equipped with a radio and perhaps a GPS and their sense of direction, the chase crew tries to anticipate where the pilot is going and meets him upon landing to help pack up the balloon.

“In my opinion, the crew is the single most important tool that a pilot has in ballooning; they are invaluable,” Drennan said.

Championship Director Harold Cliver called the ground crews the eyes and ears of the pilot.

Jeansonne is hoping to give first-time chase crew volunteers a chance to gain ballooning experience before the competition.

She said pilots will work to arrange for volunteers who register in advance to be a part of a chase crew before the festival.

“It’s a great experience and we want as many folks to come on board as possible,” she said.

Chase crew volunteers will be needed in the early morning hours the first two days of the event.

“It’s hard to get up that early, I know, but it will be worth it,” Jeansonne said.

Cliver said volunteers will be able to work with some of the top pilots in the country.

The current world champion, world runner-up and many of the top 10 competitive pilots are scheduled to attend the Gonzales event, Cliver said.

“That is a real statement as to what they have accomplished, with this event only in its second year,” he said.