By ADAM SCHRADER
Published in The Dallas Morning News on Aug. 15, 2014
It is the Tuesday night after world-renowned balloon pilot Pat Cannon of Highland Village garnered eighth place against 58 other pilots at the 2014 US National Championship.
Cannon, 67, is balloonmeister for this weekend’s Highland Village Balloon Festival at the Briarhill Middle School football field. The event is sponsored by the Highland Village Lion’s Club.
Cannon looks into the setting sun, turning his back to find the wind so he can get his balloon properly and safely inflated for the media preview. The plan on this evening is to inflate and glow a hot air balloon against the night sky.
Cannon has flown the national and world championships since 1989 and retired from high-stakes competitive ballooning last weekend. He said he feels good about the retirement and hopes to celebrate his victories over the years with successful launches and turnout at this year’s festival.
“I have two U.S. national championships that I’ve won and two senior national championships that I’ve won,” he said with a laugh.
Light wind stirs the purple collar of his Balloon Federation of America polo as his wife and crew chief, Carol, sits in the shiny red F350 parked in a nearby grass lot. The company truck is called the Taiho Niji-Go Hot Air Balloon Team company car. She is reading a book. She’s been his crew chief since Day 1, when the couple started ballooning as a family sport.
“My wife and I were looking for something to do in aviation,” Cannon said. “We tried gliders, helicopters and airplanes.”
Cannon said ballooning families often include several family members, since it takes a crew to get the balloon into the air.
“If you use people in your family, you get to know who they are and their processes,” Cannon said. “Unless you have family that will help you put up the balloon, you need friends there.”
Cannon said he has flown balloons in Japan, Austria and Australia and said they still communicate with people from the world championships in Japan in 1996.
Cannon’s said his love for the air started when he was a U.S. military helicopter pilot during a tour in Vietnam. He flew CH 47 Chinooks. When he returned, he used the G.I. bill to get his airplane ratings and has stayed in the business ever since. He also owns a company at the airport in Addison called Turbine Aircraft Services that provides product support for a series of turban-powered airplanes the Japanese built here over the years. Cannon also works as a designated pilot examiner to certify pilots for the FAA.
This weekend, Cannon said he’ll have to be careful. If the balloon goes too high in this airspace, he could hit the altitude cap and enter potentially dangerous airspace above Highland Village that is FAA-assigned for airplanes arriving at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. But, unlike airplanes, he doesn’t have to coordinate with the FAA and commercial air traffic controllers on a daily basis.
The mornings of the festival, balloons will fly either to or from the football field and try to drop bags of sand on a bull’s-eye to score points like at national competitions. Other competitions in the nationals include trying to land in a particular spot but can also be as complex as a global positioning system box in the sky that has to be hit or flown through at different levels.
In the case of this, Cannon uses propane for fuel and can’t dribble it into the balloon or maintain the same size of flame, so he pulses the flame to meter the heat into the balloon. As propane exits burner jets, it expands so rapidly it approaches -270 degrees and can freeze valves.
Cannon has a grown daughter who lives in Austin. So, she cannot be a regular crew member. This means he and Carol must recruit friends who like the sport.
He looks at the blowing trees and branches to determine wind direction and wind speed at different heights, which he calls micrometeorology. Friends and fellow Lions start arriving to help. Cannon is so focused on his task, he doesn’t greet the men, who all wear yellow work gloves. His attention shifts between the grass under his feet to the sun setting behind him. Dark clouds are coming in from the south, so he might not be able to inflate.
Carol looks up from her book, sees the gathering crowd and joins her husband outside. Four men take the basket and the bag that holds the balloon envelope out of the pickup bed and lay them on the grass. The envelope is the fabric that fills with air. They lay the basket on its side and tether the metal bars on the basket to the trailer hitch with a thick rope.
The men, under Carol’s guidance, unroll the 80,000-cubic-foot envelope.
Cannon instructs one of the men on the dangers of the fan, which is used to blow the balloon up when it’s on its side. He said that the $4,000 fan is the most dangerous part of ballooning with wood propellers that are known to come apart spinning inside a cage.
A couple of crew members pull the opening so the new wind can fill the envelope. Carol directs Allan Haugen, who is struggling to hold the balloon, which inflated and battered by the breeze can weigh as much as a car, straight.
Scott Rohn comes and takes his place. As the inflated balloon starts to rise, cars start appearing in the previously vacant lot to see the takeoff.
Excitement builds among the small crowd and the crew. Cannon squats behind the burner, occasionally throwing flame toward the balloon. Nearly 30 minutes after unpacking the envelope, the balloon is in the sky, and the men rush to keep the basket upright in a new game of tug-of-war against nature.
Cannon smiles, places his hand on the bars connecting burner to basket and swings in. The men gather, each holding the bars firmly. Cannon and his friends joke and laugh together as he occasionally hits the burner. And when he does, the men all lift matching green sleeves to wipe the combined heat of the burner and the night sky from their faces. Cannon, however, stays cool inside the basket, as the it finally settles on the ground.
The sun hasn’t quite set but he makes sure to hit the burners lighting the balloon against the oncoming storm.
Lewisville/Flower Mound editor Adam Schrader can be reached at 214-773-8188 and @schrader_adam on Twitter.