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#20: Decatur, Alabama
May 28, 2006


As you might guess, "Alabama" is an Indian word: the name of a tribe who once lived in the central part of the state and have long since fled to Texas. No one is certain what "Alabama" means. Early linguists theorized that it might be Muskogee for "here we rest". After that was debunked, less poetic lingusts argued that it might be Choctaw for "thicket-cutters".

The state seal of Alabama, instead of the usual goddesses with swords or scythes, or sheaves of wheats or curling banners with bits of Latin on them, is a simple map of the state, with the names of rivers and adjacent states helpfully noted. Similarly, the flag of Alabama is very simple: a red Saint Anthony's cross on a field of white. "X" marks the spot. Here we rest. The thicket-cutters.



Decatur, Alabama is located in the northern part of the state, along the Tennessee River. About 50,000 people live in Decatur. There is a small historic district, and a very much larger area filled with subdivisions and the same chains and franchises you might see anywhere. The combination of river traffic on the Tennessee, railways and the airport in nearby Hunstville make Decatur a popular location for industry. Large manufacturers such as GE, 3M, Goodyear and Boeing all have plants there.



I was invited to fly at the Alabama Jubilee, a hot-air balloon festival that in 2006 was in its 29th year. The event takes place on Memorial Day weekend at Point Mallard Park in Decatur, and attracts many thousands of spectators each year. It was an event that I'd tried to get myself invited to several times over the years, meeting with no response or "don't call us -- we'll call you" e-mails. However, by whatever mysterious process balloon festivals make these decisions, 2006 was my year. Balloonmeister Larry Fuller extended the invitation on behalf of the organizing committee, and appointed Phil Gentry as "Cluster Balloon Safety Officer" -- in charge of keeping everyone safe from me, I suppose, or possibly vice versa.

Phil Gentry



My crew chief Bob Dunnington joined me in Decatur on Friday of the Memorial Day weekend. We spent the day doing our prep work for the flight, which was schedule for Saturday afternoon. That night, we got to attend the Decatur Daikin Festival, a Japanese festival sponsored by the Daikin Corporation, a Japanese firm with a large plant in Decatur. The festival is free of charge and open to the community. It was a sight to see Alabamans in happi coats, participating in traditional Japanese street dancing.


Afternoon flights are always a little trickier than flying in the morning from a wind and weather perspective, particularly in areas prone to afternoon thunderstorms; however, the Jubilee wanted me to fly when they had the most spectators. For Saturday afternoon, the forecast included only a slight chance of thunderstorms -- 20% according to the National Weather Service. Checking the weather just before leaving the motel for Point Mallard on Saturday, I saw nothing on weather radar. At the park, I spoke with the balloonmeister, Larry Fuller, and one of the other local balloonists, both of whom thought the conditions looked pretty reasonable to start the inflation.


Phil worked at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and had found me volunteers from the University. Some had an aerospace background, Huntsville being famously the home of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center -- finally providing me with some evidence that cluster ballooning IS rocket science. Phil had provided them all with official UAH cluster ballooning t-shirts. I briefed everyone, and we got started inflating the balloons.


When we had inflated about half the balloons, the clouds piled up and turned dark -- pretty much just directly above us, the rest of the sky being blue with white puffy clouds.



It started to sprinkle.... and then outright rain.... and then rain REALLY HARD. The wind came up, and the balloons began to flail around wildly. The volunteers had to hold on to them to keep them from dragging away, while all the water came off the balloons in sheets.




















Everyone was drenched when the rain finally stopped.

And then, after about half an hour, the clouds came back overhead and dumped rain on us a second time.



Finally, the rain stopped. Remarkably, none of the balloons had been burst or blown away. It was already too late to complete the inflation before sunset, even if I were willing to ignore the possibility of yet another hosing and windstorm, which would probably kill me if I was in the air. It looked like I was going to have to abandon the flight.

I spoke to the TV meteorologist who was at the festival. He told me that there should be no more rain overnight, and that the following morning would be clear, with light winds. If that was true, we might be able to finish the inflation in the morning, and fly then. What I wasn't sure of, however, was whether the balloons would survive the night without being dragged into the trees by wind or otherwise burst; and if they did, how much lift would they lose. I had only had one prior experience with inflating the balloons a long time before flying; and in that instance I'd been able to store them indoors in a hangar, which was not an option here.


I discussed the situation with the resourceful Phil. He made some phone calls and somehow managed to reach the helium company (it being early Saturday evening) -- and got them to agree to bring out some additional helium tanks in the morning. We then asked the wet and bedraggled inflation crew if they would return at 5:30 AM tomorrow, which a surprising number agreed to do.


Bob and I headed back to the motel, where we dried out my equipment as best we could, and set up strings and rigging for some additional balloons. Bob was doubtful of our chances of pulling it off in the morning, but it seemed that there was at least some possibility of getting the flight in, which I would never have guessed at all after the second thunderstorm.


We turned in a for a few hours of sleep, unsure what the morning would hold.