By: Amanda Fazzino
Balloon pilot Keith Berry caught a bug for hot air ballooning 29 years ago. “I flew as volunteer crew at a balloon festival in Missouri in 1990,” Berry recalls. “I was immediately hooked!”
That one act of service launched a decades-long commitment to the sport.
“It’s one of the most awesome feelings to be free and in control of a 75 foot tall, 50 foot wide bubble of hot air floating through the sky,” Berry says. “It’s like being able to walk on air!”
A Missouri native, Berry moved to Plano in 1998 and quickly got involved with the Plano Balloon Festival, serving as volunteer crew and then as a festival official for 15 years.
In 2002, he earned his pilot’s license and has been taking flight ever since. In 2015, Berry won first and second place in two competition targets and has won other balloon competitions over the years.
Festival attendees will recognize Berry’s balloon, Highly Cool, by the large Fox 4 News banner attached to the envelope during the festival weekend. Fox 4 News is a long-time sponsor of the Plano Balloon Festival. In addition to the banner, the envelope is marked by two horizontal black stripes creating three sections. The upper and lower sections are vertical rainbow stripes, while the middle section is filled with stair-stepped blocks of colors, creating a kaleidoscope effect when viewed from underneath. The 75 foot tall balloon has an air capacity of 90,000 cubic feet. When the balloon is in flight and seen from the ground, it’s hard to appreciate how big that really is. Compare it to an Olympic-sized swimming pool, which holds a similar of water.
Considering the size, it’s no wonder pilots need a team to get them off the ground. Berry now chooses his own crew and shares his knowledge with ballooning newcomers. Balloon crew volunteers are essential to a successful flight, helping to assemble, inflate, chase and pack up the balloon.
“I choose people who have a love and passion for ballooning, and just love to be part of the process,” he says.
Berry flies as often as weather permits, usually 25 to 30 times a year.
“I try and make sure the weather and wind will be conducive for a good flight, but a few times it has made an unpredictable change,” says Berry. “I have had some ‘rougher’ landings, but nothing that was severe.”
Being suspended in a basket thousands of feet above the ground has its risks, but Berry minimizes them by planning ahead.
“I believe that being prepared for flying and keeping up with safety and sharing information with other pilots is key to being a good pilot,” he says. “Superstition has no place in flying and being safe.”
Berry and his family returned to Poplar Bluff, Missouri in 2015 after he retired from a career at AT&T. He returns to Plano each September to participate in the balloon festival.
The In Touch Credit Union Plano Balloon Festival relies on hundreds of volunteers to lift off each year. Volunteers will have an opportunity to sign up later this spring to join a balloon crew for a hands-on experience assisting visiting pilots.