Thirty-Plus Balloons to Grace Ascension Parish Skies During Upcoming Festival

Contributed Report
Robert Ambeau, head of flight operations for the 2014 Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival, said more than 30 balloons will be flying over the parish during the two-day event.

GONZALES – Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez announced this week more than 30 balloons from across the country have confirmed to fly through the skies of Ascension Parish, competing during the day and providing balloon glows during the evenings at the 2014 Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival. The festival is slated for Friday, Sept. 26 and Saturday, Sept. 27 at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

Admission to the festival is $2.00 for adults and free for children age 12 and under on each day. Organizers encourage festival goers to bring their own chairs but ice chests and pets are prohibited.

 “The pilots like the people here,” said Robert Ambeau, veteran local pilot and head of hot air balloon flight operations for the festival. “They love the food and they like the flying area. I’ve been doing this for 28 years and I’ve had pilots come to me at the beginning and say how much fun they’ve had here in Ascension in the past, but I thought they were just being nice. Turns out they were telling the truth.”

Ambeau said the hot air balloon festival will kick off on Friday morning with a media flight at Lamar-Dixon. Area media personalities, along with balloon sponsors, will get the chance to lift off just after sunrise.

When the festival gates open at 4 p.m. Friday, tethered rides will be offered until 7 p.m. for $20 per adult and $10 per child under 12.

Special shape balloons Pepe LePew and The Purple People Eater will begin inflating at 6:30 p.m. each evening followed by the Hot Air Balloon Glow at 7 p.m.

The first balloon competition flight will lift off on Saturday at 7 a.m. with the main target located in the “heart” of Ascension Parish, Ambeau said.

“To make things more interesting, as the balloons approach the target, a balloon will lift off from that location enticing a chase challenge to the other balloons like a fox and the hounds,” Ambeau said.

Ambeau said his career in ballooning started spontaneously. Many years ago, he owned the Gonzales Health Club and was approached by The Gonzales Chamber of Commerce, to be a sponsor for a hot air balloon rally in Gonzales. Sponsors would get their names on a balloon and a balloon ride, he said.

Ambeau decided to participate and went out and helped set up. On the day he was to get his balloon ride, it began raining and didn’t stop for a few days. Even though he was disappointed, being in that environment sparked an interest in what would become his profession. The pilot who was supposed to give him his hot air balloon ride mentioned a huge balloon event in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ambeau decided to go, along with his friend, Coy Casso.

“We got a ticket and went down,” Ambeau said. “When we got there, being amongst 600 balloons, I thought, I want to do this. The next day I bought a balloon, just like that. I got back, started taking my lessons, and loved every second of it and still do.”

Ambeau said pilots have told him stories of landing in local pastures in Ascension Parish during the day only to be invited for jambalaya dinner by the local landowners.

“You can ride down any one of these roads and there’s going to be groups of people gathered at someone’s house with a big pot of jambalaya cooking,” Ambeau said. “Ascension Parish is known for its hospitality. I’ve traveled to almost every state in the Union during my 28 years of professional flying and there’s been nothing even close to what we have here.”

Being head of flight operations comes with many tasks to oversee, Ambeau said. That’s why he’s surrounded himself with numerous volunteers including a balloon meister to work with the pilots, a liaison officer to take care of FAA paperwork, scoring officers to officiate balloon target drops, a landowner relations officer, registration officials and other volunteers.

“Volunteers are extremely important because balloon pilots usually come to town with more likely just their crew chief, but it takes more than two people,” Ambeau said. “Inflating a balloon could be done with two but it’s so much easier to do it with four or five people. It’s a team effort.”

Ambeau said the balloons vary in size with the average balloon height reaching approximately seven stories. He said the fabric part of the balloon, called the envelope, can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds. Ambeau said his envelope weighs around 200 pounds.

“People will ask me, ‘how do you move something that weighs a thousand pounds?,’ and I tell them, ‘Very slowly,” Ambeau said. “Instead of two people or three people, there may be 10 people.”

For more information about the 2014 Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival, please visit ascensionballooning.com.