At 20 years old, Tom Lattin asked a classmate at East Carolina University if he could watch him fly a hot air balloon.
“No,” his friend said. “But you can help crew it.”
Lattin learned to help man a balloon in 10 minutes, and has been hooked on balloon piloting for the past 29 years, flying around the U.S. and parts of Europe. Now, he works full-time in corporate marketing with the balloons, and is a volunteer co-organizer for this weekend’s Freedom Balloon Fest in Raleigh and Zebulon.
More than 40 balloons will light up at Spring Forest Road Park in Raleigh and Bennett Bunn Plantation in Zebulon for free viewings and $15-20 tethered rides.
The most photogenic event will run Friday from 3 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. at Bennett Bunn Plantation – a mass ascension and glow with all balloons brightly floating in the evening sky.
Brian Hoyle, the event’s organizer and a pilot himself, said he is expecting at least 8,000 attendees at the Raleigh location alone.
This festival is the first the area has seen for 25 years. Bringing pilots from around the nation was made possible because of an annual competition during this weekend in Greenville, S.C., has gone bankrupt.
Hoyle wanted to bring together his hometown of Raleigh and his passion for hot air balloons, which require a pilot’s license to maneuver.
“We’re the unicorn of manned flight,” he said. “But we are on the top four bucket list item.”
He stands inside a basket, with no “envelope” – the actual balloon part – above him, and pulls the propane handle to demonstrate the bright flame that provides the “glow.” Plumes of fire shoot into the air.
For 10 years, he has flown balloons. Although he had wanted to fly as a child, he didn’t check a pilot’s license off his bucket list until he met his future wife, whose father piloted balloons.
It’s an expensive hobby, with a brand-new, ready-to-fly balloon reaching $50-60,000, and it’s one of the reasons Hoyle and Lattins say the sport is shrinking in popularity.
It’s not only expense, but also the current younger generation is smaller than the baby boomers. And there’s a general lack of awareness of the hobby – or even where to start with it. Supporters have hope, though.
“Millennials are just looking for something (a hobby) to sink their teeth into,” Hoyle added.
A Memorial Day focus
Through the national anthem and a field of flags, Hoyle and Lattin want to display their special affection and respect for veterans.
During special events Thursday and Friday, pilots will take older people and those with disabilities, especially veteran groups, up in a handicap-accessible basket, which features straps to secure a wheelchair and a plexiglass door for the rider to view the scenery.
“Project Uplift,” as it’s called, possesses one of a handful of balloons nationwide that cater to riders with mobility challenges. It will be available at the Zebulon location for the general public Saturday and Sunday.
The balloon envelopes are as patriotic as their pilots. Lattin’s balloon “Freedom” displays patriotic stripes, and the Constitution is written on the side of another balloon.
“We want people to remember the reason for Memorial Day weekend,” Lattin said. “This is the way we can do it ... one way to honor vets.”
“If we were airplane pilots, we would be flying in formation,” he said. “This is what we do.”
Ready, set, fly:
▪ Zebulon: Bennett Bunn Plantation, May 22-25. Balloon glows run Friday through Sunday, 3:00pm-9:30pm. Competitions run Saturday through Monday, 6 a.m. - 10 a.m. Festivities, food trucks, beer tent and tethered rides 3 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
▪ Raleigh: Spring Forest Road Park, May 23-24. Festivities, food trucks and tethered rides 3 p.m. - 6 p.m.
▪ Admission is free. Tethered rides: $20 for adults, $15 for children 3-12, free for children 0-2. Cash only.
▪ For details on park-and-ride, visit: http://www.wralfreedomballoonfest.com/about.html
▪ To support military families, visit: http://www.wralfreedomballoonfest.com/support-our-military-families.html