By Valerie Shelton, Editor
Yellow, green, orange and red—a mixed palette of colors and patterns danced across the Clovis sky last Saturday morning, not because of another fiery sunrise, but thanks to the soaring of 10 hot air balloons that took part in the annual ClovisFest Hot Air Balloon Fun Fly.
The city’s resident hot air balloon expert Bob Locklin, or “Magic Bob” as he is affectionately called, was front and center again this year piloting a 2003 green, yellow, orange and white beauty, although this time the balloon was no longer his own, but one of two he sold to local advertising agency Boling Air Media. The caveat of the sale though? Magic Bob still gets to fly the drifting aircraft.
Locklin has been in love with hot air balloons since his first ride 18 years ago.
“I was 42 and I enjoyed it so much I owned my first hot air balloon within a year and have been flying ever since,” Locklin said.
Of course, Locklin said you can’t fly a balloon on your own. “It takes a village,” he said. And Locklin’s crew is made up of a mighty village of guys just as passionate about the art of hot air balloon aviation as he is.
Locklin’s two right hand guys at this year’s ClovisFest ride were “the two Jeff’s”—Jeff Downs and Jeff Rabe.
Downs, a Clovis resident, has been enamored with hot air balloons since he was a young boy and became more involved with them 15 years ago when he took his first few rides and quickly started working for local crews. His main duties now are assisting Locklin in setting up the balloon for flight and chasing the balloon to help with take down. Downs is currently learning to be a hot air balloon pilot and Locklin is his teacher.
“I have maybe one hour of flying finished and you need to have 10 hours with a pilot and eight hours solo,” Downs said. “It takes time because it is expensive to learn. The propane to fly it costs $150 a flight. We’re lucky at ClovisFest that the Chamber of Commerce provides the propane. There is also a lot of reading and studying you have to do to become a hot air balloon pilot.”
While hot air ballooning requires a lot of training, Downs said the function of the balloon itself is rather simple.
“We use a pie ball [helium balloon] to tell which way the wind is blowing,” Downs said. “Then when we know it’s safe to fly and which direction, we’ll start up our vent which blows cold air into the envelope. When it gets about three quarters full, we start up the burner and blow hot air in. Once the hot air starts going in, the balloon rises to the sky. In the gondola, or basket, there are four 15-gallon tanks of fuel that can keep the balloon in the air for about an hour to an hour and a half. The balloon will come down wherever the wind takes it, but the pilot tries to find a safe place—a parking lot or field—to land in.”
Rabe became one of Locklin’s crewmembers not so much out of interest as out of friendship. He has known Locklin for over 10 years and is happy to help put the balloon up and take it down. Although he doesn’t have plans to become a pilot like Downs, he said he enjoys the ride.
“I’ve been up in the hot air balloon a couple times,” Rabe said. “It’s pretty neat to ride in one.”
Locklin’s former balloon wasn’t the only popular veteran balloon in the air Saturday morning. The famous red, white and blue Remax balloon was another crowd pleaser.
Remax balloon pilot David Wakefield said the balloon is actually one of 108 hot air balloons Remax has nationwide, making the Remax balloon fleet the largest in the world. Wakefield was unable to pilot the Remax balloon at ClovisFest this year due to an ankle injury he got the weekend prior when helping a fellow ballooner on landing in the Great Reno Balloon Race. Still, he isn’t one to miss an event like ClovisFest and instead of piloting hung back taking pictures and assisting with lift off.
Also on prominent display this year was the Fresno State blimp, which made its ClovisFest debut.
The blimp is owned by Boling Air Media, the same company the Locklin sold his balloons too.
“The blimp is similar to a hot air balloon so you need to know how to operate a hot air balloon to fly it,” Chris Boling of Boling Air Media said. “Our current pilots Ryan and Trevor. Ryan is a 4500-hour string jet pilot, helicopter pilot, and the whole nine so he has tons of experience but he didn’t have the hot air balloon experience. The two things you really need to fly this blimp are sailboat and hot air balloon experience. You also need to have knowledge of fixed wing and air lobby because you are different from a hot air balloon in the fact that there is navigation capabilities and propulsion. We bought the balloons to train our guys in hot air balloon flying. Basically, it was one of those things where we needed training and needed the tools to do the training and Bob had his balloons for sale. I told him I’d buy them and give him the caveat of being able to still fly them whenever he wanted too.”
Like the hot air balloons, the blimp, called Bulldog One, is filled with cold air before the burner is fired up at about the 60 or 70 percent full mark. Unlike the hot air balloon, the blimp has an engine and steering so its pilots can control take off and landing. Boling said flying is still dependent on weather, however. If it is too windy, he said, the blimp could easily be thrown off course because its max speed is 21 miles an hour. They also don’t fly the blimp when it is too hot.
The Bulldog One is a new claim to fame for Fresno State that can now boast it is the only college in the world with its own blimp.
“The thing that is so great for Fresno State as Paul Ladwig, the Associate Athletic Director who worked on this project would say, it’s really really big and its really really red and that is Fresno State,” Boling said. “We wanted to be bold and we wanted to raise the wave as we’re calling it. We wanted to do something that is unique to Fresno and being the only one in college sports to have their own blimp is gigantic.”
Not only is having a blimp to begin with huge, but also the blimp itself rivals the Goodyear blimp in size.
“When this thing inflates it’s about 150 long and 55 tall and 50 feet wide, so the same size as the Goodyear blimp in volume and about 17 feet longer than the MetLife blimps,” Boling said.
Everything that flies is exciting to Boling so he’s thrilled his agency was finally able to get the blimp—a goal they’ve had for the last five years.
“It was a natural progression for us to go into aviation,” Boling said. “I have always been passionate about aviation and aircraft. I love airplanes and I’ve loved anything that flies since I was a little kid and to be able to combine those two, the work with what your passion is, that was the goal behind all this blimp.”