Sam Parks has the final word.
As the returning balloonmeister at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, he has authority over all balloon activities.
“It’s my decision if we fly or not,” says Parks, acknowledging it’s a particularly weighty decision on mass ascension days when nearly 550 balloons are poised to take to the skies and tens of thousands of spectators are anxiously awaiting on the ground.
“I gather a lot of data and have a full and experienced meteorological staff at the fiesta, so we have the most updated information available when we conduct the morning briefings for the pilots,” he said.
Even after balloons begin taking to the air, Parks says, “we monitor weather conditions throughout the launch from a tower on the field.” Ultimately, he makes the call to launch, delay or scrub a flying event.
The pilots are understandably disappointed when a flying event is canceled, “but they know we are considering the safety of everybody when we make these decisions.”
In Albuquerque, the biggest reason for canceling is the wind, Parks explains. The self-imposed safety standard at hot air ballooning events around the country is 10 knots, or just more than 11 mph.
“These things are seven stories tall and it’s hard to inflate a balloon at 10 knots, and at that wind speed, balloons need more space to land,” Parks says.
By contrast, gas balloons are “significantly smaller and weighted down far more when being inflated,” so there is no wind speed threshold for launching, he says. “It’s up to the event director and the pilots.”
A balloon pilot himself, Parks is also deputy director of the fiesta’s gas balloon race. He owns a 24,000 cubic foot hydrogen gas balloon and a 60,000 cubic foot hot air balloon for competitions, and a 90,000 cubic foot commercial-type hot air balloon for carrying passengers. As balloonmeister, however, he is too busy on the ground to be piloting any of his balloons in the air, he says.
Parks, who lives in Statesville, N.C., operates a heating and cooling company. He is also the president of the Balloon Federation of America.
“We’re like what NASCAR is to auto racing. We’re the governing body for hot-air and gas balloons and air ships,” he says. “We’re the voice of the regulators,” consulting with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Aeronautic Association.
Parks first discovered ballooning at the Carolina Balloonfest, a premier balloon event in Statesville that was founded 41 years ago, making it nearly as old as the larger Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
“I volunteered for a chase crew in 1986 and got hooked, and by 1988 I was flying my own balloons,” he says.
He began flying at the fiesta in Albuquerque about 1992 or 1993 and one of the things that immediately impressed him was how the throngs of spectators were allowed onto the field while the pilots were inflating and taking off and could touch the balloon and talk to the pilots.
Ten years ago, Parks brought that idea back to Statesville, where the Carolina Balloonfest adopted the approach and has been doing it ever since, he says.
As a pilot, one of his biggest sources of satisfaction comes from the reactions he gets from first-time balloon passengers. Because balloons move at the speed of the wind, there is little sensation of movement, and no feeling or sound of wind blowing, says Parks. In fact, except for the periodic roar from the propane burner, it is extremely quiet and calm.
Many of these first-timers have described it as “walking on air,” he says. “It’s simply pure joy and pure excitement.”