Published on September 3rd, 2013 | by Shellie Ward


Callaway Garden’s Annual Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival

2013-08-30 20.21.37This past weekend, I made the trek down to Callaway Gardens, in Pine Mountain, Georgia to volunteer for their 15th Annual Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival.  I saw the promotions for this event a few years ago and had been meaning to take the girls.  This event falls on Labor Day weekend, and competes with other major events happening in Atlanta such as Dragon ConChick Fil A’s College Game Day festivities, and Harley’s birthday!

With my divorce being final, the girls’ visitation fell on Labor Day weekend this year.  This would also be my first weekend without them, and I wanted to ensure that I did SOMETHING. My already divorced friends encouraged me to create a life of my own on the weekends when the girls were away. I received an email asking for volunteers to assist the pilots for the festival.  I thought what a perfect way to get out of my comfort zone and do something different. I reached out to my contact at Callaway Gardens and pitched the idea of me writing about my experience of working that event.

I arrived Friday evening, and attended the volunteer meeting (dinner was provided).  I did not know a single soul there. As I was making my plate, someone came up to me, introduced herself as Nicole (happens to be my middle name), and expressed her excitement for this event,and this was her 4th year volunteering. She asked me did I have a pilot that I was assigned to.  With eyes big, I told her “no”, and she said “grab that guy right there”! He stuck out like a sore thumb, considering he had on a stylish floral print shirt, while everyone else dressed as if they were about to do some work!

I introduced myself, and Dave (my pilot) gave me the best bear hug as if he knew me for years! We went right to work  setting up his hot air balloon named Bugly. While setting up, I was thinking, this is not simple at all and what did I get myself in to! When Dave pulled out the “burners”, I quietly panicked because yes, I am afraid of fire! I was asked to hold the balloon open so that the fire can lift the balloon. YIKES!!!!! Somehow I managed to find another job, but when the blaze came out of the burner, I was paralyzed and couldn’t move. Then magically the balloon began to lift and the basket was upright, and it was the most beautiful vision. Imagine the sunset, against the lake, and 8 of these glowing gentle giants. The pilots put on a glow show, and kids and adults alike were in awe. 2013-08-30 20.22.02

After packing the balloon away, I hung out with the Dave, his son Dave III, crew member Kelly, her son Colin, and another pilot and his family.  We sat around and listened to hot air balloon stories of the past.  Others were getting re-acquainted, as well as getting to know me, yours truly, over spirits. I had to excuse myself because set up time was 6:30 the next morning and I had not even checked into my room!

To my surprised, I was blessed with a lovely cottage!  It actually made me miss the girls, but I was too tired to sulk, so off to bed I went.  Saturday morning came very fast.  I met my pilot and crew in the fields after a complimentary pancake breakfast for volunteers.  I typically don’t eat that early in the morning, but something told me that I would need nourishment in order to survive for the day.   After a pilot’s briefing, we were cleared to set up the balloons, and begin tethered rides for the guests. I got to test ride first, which happened to be my very first hot air balloon ride and it was breathtaking!HAB2

My job was to escort guests to Bugly. When the pilot yelled “weight on”, myself and the crew gather around the basket and used our weight to hold the basket down, while passengers entered and exited.  Then Dave would yell “weight off”, and up they would go. Getting into the basket is not a simple task, but no matter people’s shape and sizes, from babies to senior citizens, everyone wanted to experience the ride.

My last experience of the day was being part of the “chase” crew during a flight that was not tethered.  Those flights cost around $175 per person.  The tethered flights are $10 per person. Being part of the chase crew meant riding in a chase vehicle, and picking up the passengers and crew wherever they landed.  Landing could be anywhere the wind takes it.  Last year, a balloon had to land in the middle of  Interstate 185!

We used radios to communicate, but we had a difficult time finding our balloon! Dave told us they were in a horse pasture two miles away.  Kelly, was driving the chase vehicle and began to worry because the sun was going down and we needed light to find them and to break the balloon down.  After an hour, we managed to find them on the curb waiting for us and yes it was completely dark.  Everyone piled in the van and went onto the private property to retrieve the balloon. Dave said that going onto the property meant that we could be locked in unknowingly because the balloon was so deep onto the property, and the owners may not realize that we were in there. Everyone, including the passengers, worked fast and hard to pack up the balloon.  I was worried about some wild horse coming after us. HAB1

After making it back safely, we drank mimosas with the passengers to celebrate their flight. What an adventure! It takes about an hour to set up and an hour to break down the balloon and we did that 3 times on Saturday alone, and it is HARD WORK!

2013-08-31 19.00.48I realized that is a culture, and way of life.    From the pilots to the crew, they love and respect this humongous, colorful nylon balloon.  To them, all of the work is worth the peace and serenity to be close to and among  the clouds. It was so neat to see the children of the pilots learning and taking the lead on the family business.  Some pilots do this as a hobby, and some do it as a living. I can always respect people’s passions.

For me…..this was a bucket list item. CHECK! Been there done that! I will never look at a hot air balloon the same. I do plan to bring the girls one year, so that they can experience it.

If you do have a bucket list of “things to do” before you’re 30 or 40 or 50 or even 60, or a “project me”, or a fitness challenge, I totally recommend you add this experience of working on a hot air balloon crew.

What I do know is that God’s hand was in this and guiding me. Sitting by a pool relaxing would have not good way to get my mind off of the girls. He kept me busy and boy did He did a good job! and……Go ME!

If you are in the central Florida area and want to schedule a flight on a hot air balloon, make sure you check out my pilot Dave Fuller at and like him out on Facebook!

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