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by Betty Moore, SLFP.com
St. LOUIS, (SLFP.com), September 15, 2012 - The exciting sport of hot air ballooning is powered by the element of wind and skilled pilots who can sail their aircraft through unusual weather patterns over unique landscapes.
In St. Louis, the landscape for balloonists to begin their flight takes place in Forest Park. And, after forty years, pilots still consider the Great Forest Park Balloon Race as one of the top spectator sports.
The event in Forest Park has also become a traditional fall family day with festivities and children's activities including the Purina/Alpo Children's Entertainment Area, pony rides, a climbing wall, interactive inflatables, games and crafts, skydiving and live music performances.
On Saturday, September 15, festival-goers waited patiently in long lines for favorites like funnel cakes, BBQ sandwiches, popcorn, cottoncandy and anything cold to drink in the food court area.
Pilots of 70 balloons and their crew also waited in anticipation of the liftoff at 4:30 p.m. under overcast skies.
Following the pilots meeting to discuss flight plans, Ralph Senn and Joe Ream from Champaign, IL, known as the Flying Tomato Brothers, were eager to talk with media about their experiences as balloonists.
"The reason this race is such a success," smiled Senn, "is that all the organizers - insteading of focusing on the pilots and the flying skills - are focus on the spectators enjoying themselves and having an experience of ballooning regardless of the weather, the winds or the circumstance."
Senn commented that the Great Forest Park Balloon Race in St. Louis has unusual elements. "Having a race where the night before all the public is invited to come in and literally jump into the basket - which we invite them to do - and to have a photo shoot where they invite everybody to come out onto the field prior to the race is really unusual in balloon racing."
"That's why the spectators really respond with over one hundred thousand coming every year," he laughed. "We've been coming for thirty-nine years in a row and we don't want to miss it ever."
Nearby, the 166' iconic Energizer Bunny® Hot "Hare" Balloon, piloted by Glo Kehoe, Albuqurque, NM, was stretched out on the field, waiting to be inflated. The balloon, with its signature blue sandals, is 15 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, weighs 1,170 lbs., and is powered by double burners that keep it flying with the force of 30 million BTUs.
When the announcement came over the loudspeaker that the 40th Annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race was on, the crowd cheered enthusiastically. Kehoe's crew quickly began the process of unfurling the 5,000 linear yards of fabric that make up the balloon.
It was a quick thrilling moment as everyone watched the Bunny gently lift off the ground, only to lean over toward the white tents set up on the east side of the field. With powerful blasts of propane from the burners, the balloon lifted off again and headed west over the trees surrounding Central Field.
"Can't believe it's been forty years," shouted John Marlow, one of the "fab four" balloon pilots who launched from the park in December with just nine spectators to begin what has become a fall celebration enjoyed by thousands.
"We've got the best pilots in the world here today. The winds are perfect and we're not going to cross the Airport," he smiled and headed quickly across the field to his waiting crew.
A short time later, the colorful "hounds" balloons began inflating and lifting off. Each pilot and balloon was announced and sent on their way with "Have a safe flight."
See related story and pictures: Great Forest Park Balloon Glow Has Become a Family Tradition in Forest Park.
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See the Energizer Bunny lift off at the 31st Annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race (2003). Quicktime Video, (28K/DSL)