By Morgan Searles | LSU Student
A motley crew assembled at 5 a.m. at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center on Friday as pilots prepared for the first competition of the 2012 Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championship Festival.
The early hour of the pilot briefing did little to stifle excitement as breakfast was served and instructions were given. The tent became a flurry of motion after John Good, Baton Rouge pilot of balloon "Wisdom Racer," laid down his microphone and sent crew members off into the pre-dawn darkness.
Pilot Ted Habetz of New Iberia didn't rush away immediately. He's been flying for 18 years, since his wife gave him a balloon ride as an anniversary present. He took lessons and bought his own balloon, "Mariahscape."
Habetz has participated in balloon festivals before, recalling his past experiences at the Pennington Balloon Championships in Baton Rouge.
"It was a good competition, it was nice. We would fly over houses, but there's a weird wind in that area."
Pennington Biomedical Research Center announced in February it would no longer host the competition, citing safety concerns.
But Ascension Parish gave the festival a new home in Gonzales, following three and a half months of planning, The Ascension Festival and Cultural Council gathered 40 certified pilots from 10 states.
Lester Kenyon, Ascension parish public information officer, said the parish is looking to make it a yearly event.
Charlotte Guedry, councilmember, said they were initially working with the Louisiana Hot Air Ballooning Foundation to organize the weekend-long event, but the foundation pulled out and the council had to organize the festival and the competition aspects of the event on its own.
"We heard there was a national festival in Longview, Texas," Guedry said. "The president of the Ascension Festival Council went [there] to find out what he wanted our festival to be about. We couldn't believe we got it all together."
Pilots compete in Key Grab and Closest To events, nabbing keys from the top of an upright pole and tossing a beanbag as close as they can to a marked circle on the ground.
Habetz said many of the pilots know one another and are friends, sharing crews or equipment if a fellow flyer needs a hand. But once the competition gets going, he said everyone yells "get out of my way!"
The sky was still dark as crews hopped into trucks and sped away to find good launching points. It's up to each pilot to locate a spot to inflate balloons.
Festivities take place Friday and Saturday from 3 to 10 p.m. with music, food games and activities. Additional competitions will take place Saturday and Sunday mornings.
"This is something nice that families can do together, and I think it's a pretty event," Guedry said. "We are a festival state, and we're proud to be part of something really important."