Bill Norwood’s introduction to ballooning was not like most. The story usually begins with a first balloon ride and an enraptured passenger who goes on to buy a balloon. But for Norwood the story was different.
“I had a children’s show on WLOS-TV in Asheville, North Carolina and I was also an airplane pilot. Naturally I featured some flying segments on my TV show,” says Norwood, who also served as the station’s weatherman. It happened that it was Norwood’s bosses, the station’s management, who saw a balloon promoting another station, and it was they who were enraptured and who then went to Norwood asking if he would be interested in learning to fly a balloon and using it to promote their own station.
Thus in 1979 Norwood ventured to The Balloon Works where he met Tracy Barnes and Bill Meadows and plans changed. “I ended up buying the balloon and leasing it to the station,” recalls Norwood, “in return for their setting me up in a corporation and allowing me to fly the balloon any time I wanted for my own needs.” The station also agreed to pay for Norwood’s training.
“At that time I was the only balloon pilot in the western Carolinas so in order to attract people to the sport, and to help find crew, I began to teach some ballooning courses at Asheville Multi-Technical College,” says Norwood. Indeed, Norwood and his then-wife Amogene, were to develop one of the most successful ground schools east of the Mississippi River. Held quarterly throughout the southeast, their intense weekend sessions boasted a 99% passing rate among students who went on to take their pilot exams. The text developed for this course would later be refined by Amogene and published as the highly successful Taming the Gentle Giant: A Guide to Hot Air Ballooning.
In 1980, Bill Meadows launched the NBRA, the National Balloon Racing Association and shortly after selected Bill Norwood to serve as his Balloonmeister. Through the mid-80’s this organization promoted a circuit of airshows/balloon events that culminated with the crowning of its own national champion at the end of each competition season.
Norwood credits the NBRA with establishing many of the ground rules used by today’s rallies. “The NBRA pioneered the use of aircraft radios and its famous spotter plane,” recalls Norwood. “At the time the NBRA began not too many pilots were using radios and there were a lot of ‘lost balloons’ and Balloonmeisters out late at night looking for lost aeronauts and crews.” he says. “The use of radios and our spotter plane showed officials how to solve those problems.” Norwood also noted the NBRA’s use of a designated Safety Officer and separate crew and pilot briefings as other highlights in the NBRA’s legacy.
Recalling the KOOL Pro Tour, the NBRA and even today’s Balloon Tour America (organized by NBRA alums Rob & Jetta Schantz), Norwood says these efforts at a national balloon racing circuit are still one step away from real success.
“Ballooning has not yet tripped that (national marketing and exposure) lever. When you have a rally, the people at the rally enjoy it and are excited by it, but that enthusiasm does not seem to carry on to the next event,” explains Norwood. “If ESPN can take America’s Cup, which is basically a couple of sailboats racing at 10-15 mph, and create excitement in that, they can do it with ballooning. But it will require a major corporate sponsor with a marketing plan that can put ballooning on nationwide television and create from it a true spectator sport.”
Following the NBRA’s run came retirement from WLOS-TV and Norwood moved into the realm of full-time commercial balloonist flying a contract for Pic-N-Pay Shoes. Today Norwood flies a balloon promoting Asheville, North Carolina where he also operates a successful ride business.
“We have a four acre field with a balloonport on site right next door to the Biltmore Estate which is America’s largest privately owned home and Asheville’s number one tourist attraction,” says Norwood. “Asheville is a very heavy tourist market and we fly 8 months out of the year.” With business partner LaDonna Payne, Norwood operates two balloons but has a stable of area pilots, many of whom he trained, that can be called in to support rides for larger tour groups or conventions. It is a program that Norwood hopes to expand in the future.
“Right now,” says Norwood, “what we’re interested in is creating a balloon resort in Asheville. We have the ideal place, we’re cultivating it slowly and the culmination of the dream will be our stable of balloons along with a stable of canoes, bikes, jeeps and river rafts because all of these recreational activities are available within about a ten mile perimeter of our location. That’s my dream.”
1979-Adds balloon rating to multiple fixed wing ratings as pilot for WLOS-TV
1980-establishes Land O’Sky Aeronautics, Inc. (with wife Amogene) offering quarterly weekend ground schools for student pilots.
1981-Joins NBRA as Balloonmeister.
1986-Conducts first Fundamentals of Instruction seminar for balloonists.
1990-Establishes ride operation in Asheville, North Carolina.