Celebrating 150 years
Helping Hamilton celebrate 150 years was the theme of the 2014 Balloons over Waikato (BOW) event, one of the premier aviation events on the New Zealand calendar. That’s right; Hamilton officially turns the ripe old age of 150 this year on 24 August, so to help get the city in the party mood, the organisers of this year’s BOW event rustled up probably the single largest birthday cake in the world.
From Louisville, Kentucky, the Wish Cake balloon team headed by pilot Frank Prell brought its massive three-tier cake all the way to the Waikato, much to the delight of everybody. Hand built in Oswestry, England, by Lindstrand Balloons, it measures over 29m in height. With 16 candles and three separate layers, the cake is simply massive.
This year’s event kicked off at Hamilton’s Innes Common with a bit of a deflated start when the opening Wednesday morning’s mass ascension was cancelled due to a somewhat stronger than desirable breeze. All flying for the morning was called off as it would have been too risky to launch and land in the conditions.
Fortunately, of the five mornings scheduled for flying, only this first was canned due to poor conditions. For the rest of the event the weather was far more accommodating. In fact, the early morning air was so calm one pilot said he was hoping for a bit more wind so they could get some distance flying in.
Thursday morning’s pre-dawn takeoffs were to have provided a glowing spectacle of balloons lighting up the dark night sky. However, the wind drift predominantly towards Hamilton Airport made it unsafe to launch. It’s very hard to avoid something you can’t see and so safety had to come first.
However, this gave the growing crowd extra time to enjoy the 2000 free breakfasts provided by sponsors before the balloons inflated as the sky brightened and daylight broke.
Friday had the crews and balloons out and about all around the greater Waikato area for the ASB school hop. Nominated schools in many of the provincial towns were treated to balloons being inflated and flown from their grounds, while some crews took the opportunity to give tethered rides and allow the children to experience first-hand the thrill of being lifted aloft under a mass of fabric. The excitement this experience brings is great to see and with luck may lead some towards being future pilots.
Saturday morning brought the Smartrak cash grab competition where the pilots attempt to grab a key from atop a large pole positioned in the middle of Innes Common. The pilots start from the outer edge of the park and attempt to drift towards and collect the key (and associated $1000 prize) from the pole.
In all the years previous, and despite some very close calls, the cash had never been claimed — until the 2014 BOW when the Tomkinson family took the cash prize in their balloon Heulwen (pronounced Hail Wind, Welsh for sunshine).
Saturday night prompted a huge crowd to Waikato University campus grounds for the ever-popular night glow. With bands bringing live music to the stage, sideshows and a great family atmosphere, all was set for a magical evening.
As darkness fell the music ramped up, the balloons were inflated and the show began with burners blasting the night sky. Envelopes glowed, pulsing in the darkness to the beat of the music, making a wonderful sight culminating in an awesome fireworks show overhead to see out the evening.
Sunday’s final morning of flying saw the crews back at Innes Common beside Hamilton Lake, attempting to fly out of the park and then back in again to drop markers on to a target. This is called flying the box where the pilots use wind at different levels to return them to where they took off, and rounded out what had been a great four out of five mornings of flying.
Special shapes dominated the attention of spectators this year with no fewer than four being brought to the Waikato especially for the event. Together with another 23 official registrations made up from local, Australian and international crews, there was always plenty of action in the sky.
However, when it came to favourites with the kids, you would be hard pressed to get past the birthday cake and its three companions, Rocketman, Angry Bird and Resene Colourful Hummingbird.
Rocketman was my favourite, flown by Jim Bushelle from the USA. The balloon is brand new, having been constructed by Limelite Balloons International just last year and with only one other public appearance prior to coming to the Waikato. Rocketman stands a whopping 33m tall when fully inflated and looks ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
Angry Bird, best described as cute and scary all rolled into one, is taken directly from the video game. It’s hard not to imagine the character coming to life right in front of you as it gently floats towards the sky. Flown by professional pilot and aeronautical consultant Frank Wechter for the Global Media Box Team, the balloon has been displayed extensively around the world.
Colourful Hummingbird, sponsored by Resene, was by far the most multicoloured and vibrant balloon of the festival. Yet another brand new balloon, the hummingbird presents its own set of challenges in both inflating and flying due to its unusual shape. At BOW it was flown by professional balloon pilot Douglas Grimes from the USA.
The 2014 Balloons over Waikato event was another huge success and something the organisers and sponsors should be well proud of. The organisers must be praised for bringing such an exciting experience — and totally free public event — to the people of the Waikato and beyond. Well done, people.
-Report and photographs by Grant Finlay.
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