From the moment Joe and Sue Calabrette first saw a hot air balloon flying over the Dallas skyline in 1979, they were hooked. Living in Plano at the time, Joe bought a flight for Sue as a birthday present.
Upon arrival at the field, Joe realized the flight was for two people, and they both hopped aboard. Their first flight lasted two hours and flew them from Mesquite to Duncanville, over dozens of fields and several airports. Not long after, Joe began training for his pilot’s license with the owner of the balloon. He became a commercial pilot in order to train his wife and take others up in their first balloon, the Big Red.
They have had three balloons since they began flying, all red balloons with blue accents. Their newest balloon, Big Red Again, is a combination of the first two designs and names. Three is an impressively low number of balloons for how often they fly, which they attribute to the tremendous care of each hot air balloon.
Not long after becoming balloonists, Joe and Sue helped start the Plano Ballooning Association. They have been a part of the Plano Balloon Festival since its inception, acting as liaisons to the ballooning club. They acted as the co-chairmen for the second Plano Balloon Festival in 1981 and have served as the Balloonmeister several times. The Balloonmeister is the unofficial captain of any ballooning event, overseeing the other balloonists and ensuring their safety. They have the final say in whether the balloons can fly. For example, if this year’s Festival is too windy or the conditions are poor for flying or landing, the Balloonmeister may delay the launch to ensure the safety of the pilots and crew.
In 1996 Joe and Sue moved to California, taking their balloon with them. Unlike Texas, Californian balloonists can only fly in the morning, before the winds get too high. Generally, balloonists avoid flying in wind speeds of over 7 mph.
One of their most harrowing flying experiences took place in Morgan Hill, California. Joe had gone up with a family friend and her elderly aunt. They were already up in the air when Tule Fog, ground fog mostly seen in California’s Great Central Valley, gathered underneath them. The fog was so dense they could see the reflection of their balloon in the fog below, and nothing of the ground.
Unable to see where to land, Joe descended slowly, looking for trees and other obstacles. He finally found the parking lot of the reservoir, where he was able to land on the steep hill surrounding the area. The family friend jumped out and tied the balloon to a nearby boulder before the balloon could take off again. When Sue and the rest of their ground crew found them, they were tied to the rock and being blown in the wind.
They have returned to Plano in recent years and have continued to attend the InTouch Credit Union Plano Balloon Festival, missing fewer than five since its inception. While they no longer fly people commercially, they enjoy flying both locally and nationally and can often be seen over the Plano skyline in their gorgeous red balloon.
Guest contributor Ali Weiss, local freelance writer.
If you ever receive a balloonist’s card, keep it. Just like baseball or Pokemon cards, a balloonist’s card is an important symbol of who they’ve met over the years while traveling. Richard, owner of the Golden High Balloon, has countless cards from people he’s met around the world.
Richard began flying as a small plane pilot. Upon receiving his pilot’s license, he would fly to New York City with dates. He loved the freedom of flying, but being a pilot is also incredibly restrictive, from filing flight plans to no drinking.
In 1989, he was introduced to hot air balloons through Re/Max, where he worked in Augusta, Georgia. “The first flight is free, the next one is $30,000.”
He bought his first hot air balloon from Re/Max and now owns his third balloon. Golden High is a custom designed balloon, which means he went to the manufacturer to choose the size, the color each fabric panel color and design from the basket up to the parachute valve.
“I’ve flown over 900 hours, including Italy, Yugoslavia, and across the United States,” says the pilot.
Near to his Dallas home, Golden High participates in his favorite event, the InTouch Credit Union Plano Balloon Festival. A lover of small festivals as well as large, Richard enjoys the all weekend event as much as the rest of us. His first experience, when he moved here in 2010, also introduced him to his crew, who were volunteers. Now, he and his crew are close friends; they travel with him to many of his events.
On the day of the festival, Richard and his team will wake up while we’re still counting sheep and head out to the field to fuel up. Then lay out the balloon and inflate it with a fan before heating the air with the burner just in time for takeoff after sunrise.
Once they’re up in the air, the wind will take them until they can find a place to land. Landing is a bit of skill and a lot of luck since the balloon has no way to steer. Before they launch, they study the wind patterns and plot out several options for landing.
Even with all their planning, landing is a game of chance. They try to avoid landing on private property, so they aim for public land or parks, which aren’t always massive open areas designed for a large hot air balloon to land.
Once safely on the ground, they embrace the 200-year old tradition of the Balloonist’s Prayer, and of course, champagne. They’ll then refuel and return to the festival for the evening launch before regrouping for the hot air balloon glow at sunset.
Golden High, Richard, and his crew will be on the field among the many hot air balloons September 23-25, 2016 at the InTouch Credit Union Plano Balloon Festival. Admission is only $5 and the full schedule of activities available on the website: www.planoballoonfest.org.