Zebras at Fiesta

by Nita G. Bateman

A Zebra is a wild animal from Africa you normally see in a zoo. They resemble a horse except they have black stripes all over their body and are little too undomesticated for riding.

That may be a good description of a regular zebra, but at the Kodak International Balloon Fiesta, Zebras are launch directors responsible for clearing balloons for lift off. Wearing their own individual interpretation of Zebra attire from top hat and tails to striped shirts, skirts, tights and scarves, they eagerly volunteered their time each day to help the balloons safety launch from the field.

The Chief Launch Official for the second year in a row was Neida Courtney Bueno. Neida’s main responsibility was to be the conduit between Pat Brake, the Balloonmeisteren and the Launch Directors to get all 850 balloons safely launched off the field. Under Neida’s direction were Dan Rose, Assistant Chief Launch Official, Section Leaders Tom Christopher, Doug Dell and Robert Savage, 33 Zebras and 22 Zebras in Training.

Zebras In Training, otherwise affectionately known as ZITs, are new recruits to the program. They are a ZIT for the first year of activities and have a trainer assigned to them for instruction and assistance. Neida described their training by saying, “We start with meetings in June and dissipate information at the meetings. This year we were lucky enough to have the Quad A, which is the local balloon club in Albuquerque, work with us. They had flying events each month and allowed us to take our trainees out so they could get some hands-on practice. During the training we showed them what ballooning is all about, what to look for, and what to expect during Fiesta week. We don’t just send a ZIT out to Fiesta by themselves though, we try to put them in between two experienced Launch Directors so if there are any problems or questions, they can talk to someone on either side and get help.”

Each Zebra is assigned a specific part of the launch field to cover. They help to provide a safe and expiditious launch. On the first Sunday the Zebras set a new world record by launching 648 balloons in one hour.

Steven Scatliffe was a ZIT at Albuquerque this year and shared his experience with me. “The main thing we are taught is how to safely coordinate a launch. With safety in mind, we handle crowd control, observe the pilots, and work with them to get their balloon safely off the ground. It really gets your adrenaline going! That is one sensation that I really noticed after I had been out here a couple of days. I’m excited to be here and intermingle with the people and the pilots. I first wanted to become a Zebra because I wanted to get more involved in ballooning and the Fiesta event. I had been crewing for a pilot for about nine years and wanted to do something that would get me more involved. I’ve been having a great time as a Zebra In Training, and definitely don’t regret having to get up so early every morning to be here. Hopefully, if they think I’ve done a good job, they will invite me to return next year.”

Summing up his experience, Steve said, “I’d say it’s very rewarding and a great opportunity to learn more about ballooning itself. I’ve also learned a little bit about myself too in dealing with the general public and the pilots.”

This year the Fiesta moved to a new and much bigger field than previous years. In order to handle the larger field, each Zebra had a zone that they covered. The launch field was separated into three sections, the South, Mid and North Sections. Each Zebra was assigned one row in that section to cover. They started from the front of the row and followed it from beginning to end until all balloons in that row had safely left the field. Since there were 850 balloons at Fiesta this year, the launch was divided into two waves of 400 balloons each.

Left: Neidia Courtney Bueno Chief Launch Officer for KAIBF.
Middle: Zebras mug for Balloon Life.
Right: Balloon Fiesta State park is a lonely place when the Zebras job is done.

I asked Neida to describe what the Zebras were looking for. “First off, to see if the balloon is air worthy and to make sure there is no damage to either the envelope or the basket. Then they let the pilot know where they will be standing and what hand signals to look for during the launch sequence. They also let them know what the wind conditions are and if there is traffic in the area. Like this year we launched from both North and South ends of the field at the same time and the Zebras had to let the pilots know what kind of overhead traffic they might have to deal with. Then the Zebra walks the pilot out to a clear area on the field and when the skyway is clear, the Zebra blows their whistle and gives a “thumbs up” signal, letting the pilot know it is clear to take off.”

Neida further explained, “If a pilot doesn’t obey the Zebra’s signal, they are called to the Tower on the first violation and “talked” to by the Safety Officials. If they do it again, they are grounded for a day. That could be a tough break for a pilot who has done well up to that point, because one day lost during competition could blow them right out of the standings.”

Neida summed up her experience as Chief Launch Official this year by saying, “The Zebras have been a great group to work with. They are really dedicated to their job and concentrate on what they are doing at all times. In the middle of the hectic action on the field, I can always count on them to be there and get the job done. After they get all the balloons safely launched though they love to have fun! It’s hard work out there with so many pilots this year. You’ll have a row with 30 pilots on it and one will be a pain and all the others will be great. Unfortunately it’s that one pilot that was a pain that you remember. We’ve trained our Zebras to deal with them professionally though and keep focused on keeping the launch a safe one. If they ask me to come back next year, you can bet I’ll be here!”

Section Chief Tom Christopher told me, “This is best job in the world. And, since it’s on a volunteer basis, I give myself a pay raise every year. I’ve also set up my own retirement plan and benefit program. You know, I probably couldn’t find a better job anywhere!”

This was the first year Steve Yazzie took on the responsibility of Chief Safety Official. He was a Safety Officer for the past six years and before that, a Field Judge for five years. Steve expressed his feelings by saying, “It takes a lot of dedication to run the event, but I like it. It gives you a good feeling that you are helping put on the largest balloon spectacle in the world.”

Being a spectator out on the field every morning and watching the orchestrated action of the Zebras really gave me a feeling of safety too. When you have over 800 balloons launching in an hours time, you can get overwhelmed by the spectacular sights around you. Your adrenaline gets pumping with all the excitement and it’s nice to know that the Zebras and Safety Officials are watching out for not only the pilots’ safety, but for yours too.

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