Past Times

Balloons took to the skies for the Triangle Classic

The News & Observer decided to join the fad, launching a hot air balloon at the fairgrounds in 1987.
The News & Observer decided to join the fad, launching a hot air balloon at the fairgrounds in 1987. N&O File Photo

The WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest in Fuquay-Varina this weekend might stir memories for longtime Triangle residents. For about four years starting in the late 1980s, the Triangle Balloon Classic drew pretty good crowds, despite ongoing battles with the weather. In 1988, N&O writer Martha Quillin reported on the event’s second year.

Rick Hill of Greenville knelt on a towel, clasped his hands behind his back, lowered his head in respect and received the balloonist’s blessing:

“May the winds welcome you with softness, may the sun bless you with his warm hands, and may you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter and sets you safely back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”

As a comrade poured champagne over his head, Hill picked up a glass from the ground – using only his teeth – and drank a toast to his first balloon flight.

“Welcome to the art of ballooning,” fellow fliers said, patting Hill on the back and joining him in a Saturday morning drink at the 1988 Triangle Balloon Classic.

Earlier, Hill had lofted past 200 to 300 spectators who sat on folding chairs and blankets at a clearing off U.S. 70. The crowd began gathering about 6 a.m. to watch 60 hot-air balloonists try to drop beanbags on a huge white “X” marked on the field. The three-day festival and competition will end with winners taking a cash prize for the most points accumulated.

In all, between 10,000 and 15,000 people attended the event Saturday. But the afternoon festivities were dampened by two thunderstorms.…

The contest drew balloonists from all over the country, including 18-year veteran Chuck Rohr, who piloted a billowy orange, yellow, red and blue craft that wandered away from the target despite his best efforts.…

Rohr, who said he was “approaching half a century” in age, learned ballooning from a man in Albuquerque, N.M., after becoming bored with movie stunt work, airplanes, yachts and other eccentric pastimes, as he called them. When he bought his first balloon, he was living in Kansas. On the bottom of the basket, he announced he was “Off to see the Wizard.”

Since then, Rohr has logged 6,000 hours of hot-air travel, which he thinks is the only way to fly. He is so fond of balloons that he went into business custom-designing them as advertising gimmicks for everything from amusement parks to political candidates.…

He has had so many happy landings that his dog, Solo, recognizes a bottle of champagne and backs up as the bottle is opened, ready to play catch with the flying cork.…

Rohr communicates with his ground crew using a citizens band radio, describing the surrounding scenery just before he plops into it so a driver can find him. The N&O Aug. 21, 1988

By 1990, the Triangle Balloon Classic was being sponsored by the Clayton Rotary, Civitan and Jaycee organizations as a fund-raising event.

Last year, the weather wreaked havoc on the event with rain. Nervous about a similar prospect, the Rotary Club took out a $20,000 rain insurance policy for this year’s classic.

Rotarians set up a rain gauge outside their tent, and a hired meteorologist kept watch on it during the day. If the droplets sprinkling down Saturday totaled one-tenth of an inch, the clubs were assured to make money on the classic this year, says Leigh Hudson, a Rotarian and chairman of the classic.

“We’re covered either way, “ he says. As it turned out, the insurance company didn’t have to save for a Rotarians’ rainy day. The day ended short of the $20,000 mark. The N&O Sept. 23, 1990

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Teresa Leonard: 919-829-4866, @lizardlodge

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