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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Sunday, Mar. 4, 2018 8 months ago

Baldwin Park residents witness Orlando Balloon Glow event

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The event gave residents a chance to see hot air balloons up close.
by: Tim Freed Associate Editor

This story was a collaboration between Associate Editor Tim Freed, Associate Editor Troy Herring and Black Tie Reporter Harry Sayer.

There’s something alluring about the feeling of flight. The sensation of being carried away by the wind and almost touching the clouds is a rush most people only dream of experiencing. But for seasoned hot air balloon pilots, it’s a sensation that know very well.

Baldwin Park residents caught a glimpse of hot air balloons and how they fly at the Orlando Balloon Glow Friday, Feb. 9, through Sunday, Feb. 11, at lower Blue Jacket Park. 

The event gave residents a food truck/vendor gathering after dark with a twist — a handful of hot air balloons that lit up the night sky one at a time.

Crowds of people stared in wonder as massive fabric balloons filled with hot air — gently lifting baskets able to hold four to five passengers off the ground.

THE FIRE, THE FLAME, THE ILLUMINATION

Nothing beats the feeling of being suspended in mid-air, Orlando Balloon Glow Event Director and balloon pilot Ricky Garvie says.

“It’s the most amazing feeling you can imagine,” he says. “You’re looking down over everything around you. When you’re in an aircraft, you have windows, whereas here, you just have four posts on each side of a basket. You have a panoramic view of everything going on around you. It’s so quiet and peaceful.”

Visitors even had a chance to climb inside the basket and fire up the burners, sending a pillar of flame skyward. It’s not every day that people get to experience this, unless maybe you’re Balloon Director Patrick Fogue, who has been in hot air balloons since he was 10 years old.

“It’s just magical; it brings out the kid in everybody,” Fogue says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re old, you’re still in awe of the fire, the flame and the illumination.”

Fogue has flown all across the globe in his years as a pilot — from Ireland and Jamaica to Malaysia and over the Great Wall of China.

It’s still fun seeing the excitement surrounding the inflatable aircraft at events like the Orlando Balloon Glow, he says.

“Most of the people here have never seen (a hot air balloon) and definitely never been in a balloon basket,” Fogue says. “It’s a novelty. It’s so much different from a carnival ride or something like that. This is a real aircraft.”

The Orlando Balloon Glow was all made possible by a chance encounter Garvie had with balloons more than a year ago.

Garvie started organizing different events three years ago and happened to organize a balloon event by accident. Garvie fell in love with the hot air balloons after several rides, learned to fly last year and even invested in getting one himself — a balloon sporting different shades of blue, yellow, green and pink.

Garvie named it “Lizzie” after a woman in the U.K. he knew who died in 2016.

“My first balloon was supposed to be a Coca-Cola balloon,” Garvie says. “But I saw this balloon with its bright colors and I thought, ‘You know, that’s more of a reflection of her personality, so I’ll call this balloon after her.’”

He started organizing hot air balloon events in the Midwest before settling down in Orlando and deciding to bring an event to Baldwin Park.

“For me, it’s all about the fun of flying,” he says.

But Garvie and Fogue weren’t the only pilots at the Orlando Balloon Glow.

FREEDOM OF FLIGHT

There’s a good chance that if you ever want to meet Jon Thompson, the best place to look is up.

You may think that’s a joke, but Thompson — a team pilot for RE/MAX’s balloon team in Florida — likes to keep his feet, quite literally, far above the ground.

“Flying is something that is special — whether it’s in an airplane, helicopter or balloon,” Thompson says. “As a pilot, it’s being free from the bonds of Earth and floating effortlessly through the sky — it’s hard to describe. It’s very peaceful, it’s very surreal, and it’s a fantastic way to fly.”

Thompson, a Kissimmee resident who flies the hot air balloon around the state as a part of his role as a regional marketer, has been flying for RE/MAX for nearly 15 years.

The passion Thompson has for ballooning goes much further than just the work that he does. It’s a love that he has enjoyed for most of his life.

The 40-year veteran pilot began dabbling in ballooning when he was growing up in Iowa. It’s there in the Midwest that he and his family took in many balloon events during the summer months.

“Mom and Dad took myself, my brother and my sister to a balloon festival kind of like this one (in Baldwin Park),” Thompson says. “So it was, ‘Mom, Dad, Mom, Dad: I want to fly balloons’ — they decided to let him (his brother) learn and the family became his crew, and he got his license at 16 years old.”

From the moment that his brother, Jeff, got his license, there was a snowball effect through the household.

“Then my dad decided to get his license, and then when I turned 16, I got my license,” he says. 

Although he got his license at 16, Thompson actually started even earlier as a part of his brother’s crew at age 9.

Since that first taste of floating freedom, Thompson says he has flown more times than he can count and has taken thousands of people up in his balloons.

And despite the fear of heights many have, Thompson says he’s only had to come down once during his career to let someone off — he has become a rather strong master of keeping people’s minds busy.

“When you first do it, the anticipation ... is kind of like, ‘Oh boy, what to expect’— you’re waiting for a rush feel or a lift feel,” Thompson says. “I can literally get you off the ground without you knowing it. I can talk about the balloon above you, keep your eyes on the air and focus on the heat and next thing you know we’re off the ground by 50 feet, and you didn’t even know it.”

The enjoyment that Thompson has when it comes to sharing his love for flying with others — and his overall enthusiasm for ballooning — makes it feel as if his days in the sky will never end.

“I have a blast doing it, and as long as I can do it safely, I’m going to continue to do it,” Thompson says. “My dad retired from flying at 80 years old, so I have a few more years ahead of me.”

SUNRISE

Deon and Noeleen Frank have ordinary weekdays. Deon spends his days as a manager in the University of Central Florida’s IT department. His wife Noeleen, works as a behavior therapist. 

But when the weekend comes, it’s a different story. The couple takes to the skies in their own hot air balloon. 

“When you’re flying in the early morning with a little mist on the lakes and the birds flying around you, it’s very cool,”  Deon says.

For 20 years, the Franks have rented out their hot air balloon, the Kwelanga Sunrise, to daring customers wanting to see the world from a bird’s-eye view. The balloon’s name stems from the Swahili term for “sunrise.” 

It was a long road that led them to this point — the pair immigrated to the United States from South Africa in the 1980s. 

“Things were dangerous (in South Africa),” Deon says. “It just wasn’t the kind of place you’d want to raise a family.”

They settled in Columbia, Missouri, where Deon worked in the IT department at the University of Missouri. The couple met Nora, another ex-South African who was in Columbia for the ballooning national championship. Noeleen volunteered the pair to help set up and crew the balloon and, in turn, Nora eventually taught Deon how to pilot a balloon himself. 

After being shown the ropes, he acquired his pilot’s license and bought his first balloon in 1999. 

“The first time (Nora) and I went up, she needed to go up quickly,” Deon says. “She just rocketed us up, and I just left my stomach on the floor. It was just really scary.”

Now living in the UCF area, the pair volunteered to be part of the Balloon Glow. They have traveled with the Kwelanga Sunrise through the entire country and even a few spots in Mexico. Deon thinks the best place to fly in Florida is the Kissimmee area. 

“Orlando has an international airport; we have to stay out of their airspace,” Deon says. “(In Kissimmee), there’s open fields and plenty of space to land.”

Their first balloon lasted from the late 1990s to about 2008. 

“Ballooning is a Federal Aviation Administration-regulated sport,” Deon says. “You have to get (annual) inspections by a mechanic just like an airplane, to make sure it’s still in good shape. They’ll tell you how much time you have left with the balloon.”

The balloon rides don’t bring in a lot of cash for the Franks — often only enough to cover initial costs — which is why they still have their day jobs. 

“(The Kwelanga Sunrise) can only hold up to four people, which doesn’t really compare to the enormous commercial balloons that carry 20 people,” Deon says. “We mostly just get clients from larger companies that send them to us when they’re full; we don’t even advertise.”

They fly about 20 people each year with their typical clientele looking for romantic getaways. The Kwelanga Sunrise has been home to dates, proposals and even a few weddings. For Deon and Noeleen Frank, the focus is more on passion than profit. 

“We love sharing (the Kwelanga Sunrise) with other people,” he says. “Just having people heading up and saying ‘Man, that’s awesome. This is an experience we’ve never had.’” 

COME FLY WITH ME

Garvie says he knows that desire to fly and discover the sky will always pique someone’s curiosity.

That’s why he hopes to bring the event back to Baldwin Park later this year in the fall with about 20 balloons.

He looks forward to bringing the event back soon, he says.

“With a bit of luck we’ll come back later in the year with a much bigger event and many more balloons and a carnival,” Garvie says. “Right now, we’re just trying to put something together to start the ball rolling.”

Tim Freed is an Associate Editor with the Winter Park/Maitland Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.

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