Special shapes over Waikato
Once again the prospect of watching colourful balloons floating across the skies of Hamilton has proved a public highlight on the Waikato events calendar.
The setting of the Waikato Balloon Festival at Innes Common alongside Hamilton Lake is hard to beat. The tranquil lake, the large green sports fields and an abundance of ducks and other wildlife make for an attractive backdrop to the colour and sheer size of the balloons.
Beginning early on a Wednesday morning, the Hamilton event traditionally kicks off with the Mass Ascension, involving all of the balloons drifting into the morning sky only a few minutes apart. Sadly, the weather gods provided what some might call a typically foggy start to the day in Hamilton. Many of the balloons inflated in hopes the fog might clear, but alas this didn’t happen in time for any to fly away.
However, most did inflate and a few did go up on tether, at least allowing the crowd to see the balloons in the air.
The weather improved significantly on Thursday and Friday mornings which allowed the much anticipated flying action to get under way. The balloons were airborne from Innes Common with the pilots tasked with dropping markers on targets laid outside the park and downwind of the launch site.
As it turned out, these were the only two mornings that the balloons managed to get away from the launch zone. Saturday and Sunday offered too much wind for safe flying, and especially strong upper air movement sealed the fact. This didn’t stop the balloons from being inflated, however, much to the enjoyment of the gathered crowd, but it did make for some difficult moments for the pilots and crews.
Key to the Waikato festival’s popularity is the continued appearance of special shape envelopes. This year event organisers had secured no fewer than four of these wonderful cartoon-like character balloons. Listening to the children, there didn’t seem to be a clear favourite, suggesting that the organisers had chosen well.
The four shaped envelopes were owned and piloted by:
• Jeff Snyder from Vermont, USA, with Princess Carriage complete with a frog in the driver’s seat;
• Tony Saxton from Pennsylvania, USA with Elefantastic Pea-Nut Elephant, created in 2012 in Brazil;
• Lenny Cant from Belgium with Race Car; and
• Jay McCormack from Vermont, USA, with Baby Dino, a Tyrannosaurus Rex hatching out of its egg.
Alongside the four international special shape pilots were 16 local and Australian pilots flying the more traditional round envelopes.
One of the neat innovations for this year’s festival was the use of Smartrak GPS tracking PLBs and mapping software. With the GPS locator device on board the balloons, the public and organisers were able to access the current altitude and track of the balloons on a map of the local area in near-real time.
All that was needed was a mobile smart phone. With the page link available from the festival’s website, it was easy to access this information on a phone and follow the balloons’ paths and progress as they floated across the city.
No doubt it also assisted the recovery crews in getting themselves to the right spot.
Always popular with the public is the Saturday evening Night Glow, held on the sports grounds of the University of Waikato. Each year the spectacle draws a crowd rivalling many of the biggest sporting events, and the 2016 occasion was no exception. With sideshow rides, children’s entertainment, live band music and a real picnic atmosphere, the free show had families arriving from near and far in their thousands.
The weather looked to be playing its part, but as darkness descended and the first of the balloons were being inflated, or preparing to do so, conditions rapidly changed. A patch of light drizzle pushed its way across the skies and led to most of the balloons being deflated or left in their trailers.
Thankfully (and bravely), three balloons remained inflated and, together with sequenced gas burners, loud popular music and a great crowd atmosphere, the final show went ahead as planned. It may not have been all the organisers had hoped it would be, but despite the weather disruption it was still a great night’s show which ended with a powerful and spectacular fireworks display.
So with five scheduled days of flying, only two eventuated into actual departures from Innes Common. This sport is more dependent than most on co-operating weather, so the outcome is not unexpected when running such an event.
From a spectator’s point of view, even although there wasn’t a lot of actual flying to be seen, I believe the event organisers did a great job with what they had to work with and no one could really have gone away unhappy … it’s just the nature of hot air ballooning.
- Report and photography by Grant Finlay.
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