Robert Ambeau goes all over the country for hot air balloon competitions, so he doesn’t mind it a bit when the rest of the country comes here.
Ambeau, a Gonzales resident who has won nine Louisiana ballooning championships, will be among about 50 pilots participating in the Pennington Hot Air Balloon Championship, which runs Friday-Sunday, Aug. 5-7, at the Pennington Biomedical Research Facility grounds.
This is the ninth annual event based at Pennington, which provides competition in the mornings and a festival atmosphere on Friday and Saturday night, with live music, balloon glows, parachuting, fireworks and more.
None of this was on Ambeau’s radar until 25 years ago. Ambeau owned the Gonzales Health Club, and the local Chamber of Commerce enlisted him to be a sponsor of a local balloon event. Being around the balloons got him interested enough to ask one of the pilots if there was another such event taking place soon. There was, in Albuquerque, N.M. Ambeau decided to go.
“When I got there, I got so involved with everything and so excited I bought a balloon,” he said. “I didn’t have a license or anything, but I just knew I was going to take lessons and start flying in my balloon. I was caught, hook, line and sinker.”
Ambeau competed every chance he could. As with any sport, there was a learning curve to negotiate.
The wind alone determines the lateral direction that hot air balloons fly; pilots only have control of altitude. But, since wind directions can vary at different altitudes, learning to read what is happening to other balloons is key to finding the right wind to take you where you need to go, Ambeau said.
Competitions include tossing a bean bag at a target, with the one closest to the center winning the prize, and a key grab, in which a pilot who is able to grab a ring off the top of a 25-foot pole gets a prize. Being able to maneuver hot air balloons that precisely is difficult.
Then, eventually, the balloon must land, preferably in a location that is both safe and accessible to the crew that must pack up and load the deflated balloon and equipment. Ambeau’s 70,000-cubic foot balloon has 200 pounds of fabric.
“We’ve landed just anywhere - roads, Interstates, football field, baseball field, backyards, just about anywhere you can think,” he said. “A challenging flight was in Albuquerque, N.M., for me one year. We flew and landed back in a desert, and we probably had a quarter of a mile to carry all the equipment, which was a big challenge. ... After you do one of those, you start getting more precise about where your landing is going to be.”
Ambeau’s ballooning career allowed him to meet famed actor Paul Newman when Newman was in Baton Rouge filming the 1989 film Blaze. Newman had always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon, and someone put him in touch with Ambeau, who remains impressed with Newman.
“Pick the movie that you liked him in the best, and he was 100 times better in person,” Ambeau said.
Pennington Hot Air Balloon Championship director George Richard thinks it’s a lot better to see balloons in person, and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center property on Perkins Road at Kenilworth Parkway is the main location for up-close viewing.
“People have come to realize that you can get there early in the morning around 6:30 or 7 and see some great balloon flying,” Richard said. “Pennington is always the first target in the morning, so balloons go there.”
Because wind direction determines subsequent targets, they aren’t chosen until the morning of the race. But wind or no wind, the festivities resume each night at Pennington.
The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Command Parachute Demonstration Team gives demonstrations at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., at the latter with flares attached to their boots so they can be seen.
“It’s really exciting,” Richard said. “People like it. They jump from about 8,000 feet, and they really put on a show. In the night sky it looks like shooting stars throughout the event. They actually land right in the middle of the field on the target as close as they can get.”
There will be a mass balloon ascension from the field at 6 p.m., with a balloon glow at 8 p.m. and fireworks at 9:30 p.m. This event permits the crowd to walk about the field and visit the crews, which provides a chance to take close-up pictures of the inflation process.
A Children’s Village will be open from 3-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday with free activities that include pony rides, inflatables, face painting, a rock wall and arts and crafts.
The Children’s Village is located near the line of cypress trees on the northwest side of the balloon field.
The musical lineup on Friday features the Dixon Correctional Institution band from 3-6 p.m. and Anita LeBlanc and Westbound Train from 6:45-9:45 p.m. On Saturday, it’s the Angola Band from 2:30-4:30 p.m., BR Music Studio bands from 4:45-6 p.m. and the C.J. Solar Band from 6:45-9:45 p.m.
Attendance and parking are free, but no ice chests or pets are permitted.