Hot air balloon pilots ready to fly at weekend festival

Halen Doughty
Director of Balloons at this year's Hot Air Balloon Festival Robert Ambeau poses in a basket kept at his "office" in Gonzales.

Local hot air balloon pilots are gearing up for this weekend's Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival. Robert Ambeau has been flying balloons for 30 years, and you can see the master pilot this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center festival grounds.

Ambeau has won 15 state championships here in the Bayou State and two more in Mississippi, as well as a Southeast Regional title. He was the Number 1 points leader in the US, and he was also the 1989 Rookie of the Year. He holds four keys from the insanely challenging key grabs, where balloon pilots attempt to grab a key from a ring on top of a post in the ground. He says key grabs are even harder than landing a hole in one in golf.

But this weekend's event won't feature any competitions. It's all about the love of flying, which is something Ambeau definitely understands.

"I've been doing it 30 years, and I love every flight," he said.

But he doesn't always love taking them down, as it can be a lot of work to load up all the pieces of the balloon. The 70-foot tall envelopes carry upwards of 300 pounds worth of passengers in the basket, which holds four fuel tanks. Optimal wind speeds are between 5 and 8 miles per hour, as the balloon depends on Mother Nature to travel.

Ambeau has three balloons of his own today, after getting his first one three decades ago. He works in balloon advertising with some big name clients like Coco-Cola, Dr Pepper, and Cellular One. He'll be showing off his Coca-Cola balloon at the festival and invites everyone to come check it out.

"The best thing about flying in a balloon is everybody gets a window seat," he said.

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