Balloon Festival serious business for competitors

Spectators began trickling in as early as 6 a.m. Saturday morning to watch 50 brightly colored balloons fly over the Lamar Dixon Expo Center. The colorful pageantry delighted the early risers, but it’s serious business for the balloonists.

Points earned in Louisiana can go toward national balloon competitions, event director Brad Walker said. He noted that the competition in Gonzales is certified by the Balloon Federation of America for the first time this year.

The morning contests were new for 2013 as well as the location of targets in the Lamar Dixon field. The pilots maneuver their balloons to drop weighted beanbags as close as possible to targets on the ground and score points in the process.

“Last year the competitors flew over targets throughout the city,” Walker said.

Consolidating the contest on the field made it easier for spectators, some of whom had trouble finding the targets at last year’s event.

The Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championship Festival started at 6 a.m. Friday, continued through the afternoon and began again at 6 a.m. Saturday.

Friday night’s festivities attracted an estimated 20,000 people even though the wind was too high for the competition. Balloons still flew over, though, dropping beanbags on the field. Other events were also held, included what’s called the “glow,” in which grounded balloons are lit from within after dark, and the inflation of seven shaped balloons such as Purple People Eater and Oggy the Friendly Dragon.

For Saturday morning’s competition, the balloons took off from Pelican Point. Some balloon pilots completed another task before flying to the main field at Lamar Dixon. The tasks are determined in part by the weather, and crews don’t find out what they are going to do until the briefing session right before the competition, Walker said.

Once they reached Lamar Dixon, the balloon pilots flew over the field and tried to drop beanbags in designated areas. Some pilots competed in the Lagniappe Division with $5,000 in prizes while others participated in the Louisiana State Competition, which carried a $20,000 purse.

With hot air balloons costing between $65,000 and $100,000, ballooning is “not something people get into lightly,” Walker said.

Pilots must be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, and balloons have to be evaluated like any other aircraft.

Coca-Cola balloon crew member Jonathan Moore, a student pilot, said he began participating in hot air balloon festivals when he was just 2 years old. His parents piloted balloons in Texas before moving to Louisiana.

“They wanted to stop, but kept doing it because I loved it so much,” Moore said.

He assisted pilot Robert Ambeau, who flew the Coca-Cola balloon in Saturday’s competition.

Ambeau has been piloting balloons for 25 years and has won numerous awards, including state championships. Ambeau and Moore have been flying together for 2 years.

“Working with Robert made me see (ballooning) in a different light,” Moore said.

They’ve traveled all over the country competing, but it’s fun to be on his home turf, he said.

Moore’s dream is to fly a balloon in a competition himself someday.