The first annual Suffolk Spring Spectacular and Balloon Fest was a resounding success! Nevermind the weather was completely uncooperative, none of the competition took place, and only one balloon was able to fly - everybody had fun anyway. According to the pilots and crew, next year is definitely on their schedule as a "must do."
Suffolk, Virginia is a small rural town on the outskirts of the Hampton Roads Tidewater area. That's a large metropolitan area comprised loosely of Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Suffolk. Until this festival, Suffolk's other claim to fame was peanuts - growing, processing, shipping, and celebrating (there is a peanut festival every fall). Downtown is charming and old and parts include an industrial area reminiscent of John Steinbeck's Salinas, California. Outlying areas are planted peanut fields and green grassy horse pastures. Its townsfolk are friendly and more than happy to welcome everyone to their party.
Balloonmeister Rene Meier outlined an ambitious plan with lots of flying and great prizes (including a key grab for a 1997 four-wheel drive vehicle). The event was to have started Friday with an afternoon flight followed by Saturday and Sunday morning and afternoon flights. Both days also had tether rides scheduled and Saturday was to have had an evening "balloon illumination."
Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. Friday afternoon several balloons were able to inflate for thrilled spectators to look at, but only one was able to get aloft for a short hop. Saturday morning brought clouds, winds, and dire predictions for the rest of the day. Sure enough, about noon the rain set in and further flying events were clearly not in the cards. Pilots and their crews were disappointed, but their good spirits were maintained with the great meals and warm southern hospitality provided by festival hosts.
Sunday dawned overcast and calm. The weather wizard briefed pilots that prospects looked good for a morning flight and dismal (again) for the afternoon. Balloonmeister Meier had set up the pole for a key grab and gave instructions for off-sight launchings. The 400 foot ceiling would have to lift to 1500 feet and local radio stations would broadcast whether we had a "go" or "no go" by 8:30 a.m. No luck. At 9:30 a.m. (after a one-hour extension) the call was "no go." The field for the event is a small airfield and fixed wing events scheduled for later precluded further extensions. And just as predicted, along with clearing came winds, so afternoon events were canceled. Oh well - more food and hospitality and fun. (You had to be there to really appreciate the GREAT April Fool's Day story we saw the end of.)
Even without flying, it looks like Suffolk has a winner here. In addition to the planned balloon events, there were carnival rides, arts and crafts sales, vendors, two air shows, and two vintage car shows. Not to mention all the food anyone could possibly want. And if that wasn't enough, there were two days of live country music shows. Sunday's headliner was Tracey Lawrence and he brought the house (tent?) down! Reportedly Lawrence had planned to take his new bride for a balloon ride after the show. Maybe next year?
Three cheers for the Suffolk festival officials. They did a super "first job" and things only promise to get better with practice.
A big hat's off to Rene Meier for planning a super event and maintaining his composure when nature refused to cooperate. Additionally, he spent a lot of time explaining balloon flying to the five (yes, that's five) FAA officials who came to observe. Since this was the first balloon event for this area, local FAA folks were concerned that things go well. Even without actual flying, it looks like Rene's planning, ground crew training, and attention to safety concerns impressed them.
Anyone for Suffolk in Spring 1998?