by Tom Hamilton
Want to advertise? What better medium then a balloon with your company's name emblazoned around it? So thought Sidney Conn, owner of an audio store in Calgary. In the late 70's he had watched a number of companies, including a local real estate company, use hot air balloons very effectively to build awareness of their businesses.
"We thought that we could buy the balloon and give it to the very active local balloon club and they would fly it over the city. They said that if we gave them the balloon, gave them a chase truck, paid the insurance, bought a trailer, that they would guarantee that they would fly it twelve times a year out in the country," says Conn. "We didn't think that was a very good idea.
"I took a flight with the guy who was trying to sell us the balloon and figured I can do this. Just fly one or two mornings a week over the city."
They didn't have the balloon very long when Sidney and his wife Elenor had come up with an even grander idea using the balloon for publicity. A flight over the North Pole.
In 1979 they began planning the expedition. They worked very closely with the manufacturer of their balloon, The Balloon Works. Dodds Meddock, from the factory was invited to join the team. "Planning a flight like this is a logistical nightmare. Anything you want to send up by ship has to be sent almost six months in advance. It is stored at Resolute Bay and then flown by plane to whereever else you are going.
"We contracted with a company with a camp on Hazen Lake, where we were going to have our base camp. Supplies were sent and stashed well in advance."
Part of planning included stashing fuel on the ice enroute to the Pole for refueling going and coming. They discovered that the fuel stashed the previous year had been used by someone else and had to have more flown in at the last minute.
The flight to the Pole in a Twin Otter took ten hours, one way. Conn had studied celestial navigation so that he could actually fix the position of the North Pole. The flight took place in April, 1980, right at the beginning of the Arctic dawn.
The team spent about four hours at the pole with the balloon inflated much of time waiting for winds to calm down. Conn used a sextant to find the Pole and then tacked down a large X with compass pointall pointing South. When the winds calmed he took off, flew over the center of the target, and landed, sliding to a stop on the ice. Conn had hoped to make a long flight, but the ice had begun breaking up early that year and the chase pilot told him that if Sidney left the ice sheet, the pilot might not be able to rescue him.
The close cooperation with the factory lead Meddock to call Sidney next when The Balloon Works came up for sale. Elenor visited North Carolina first to see if it was a good place to raise their four children. In 1982 the sale was completed and the Conn's relocated to Statesville, North Carolina.
The Balloon Works in those days was headquartered in old chicken coops out in the country. "It was fun being out in the country, but you couldn't get trucks to drive out there. It was hot in summer, cold in the winter, and dirty all the time. We spent half the time building balloons and the other half cleaning them up. There were bugs and snakes.The staff would go freaky if they came in and there were snake skins laying on the cutting table."
In 1983 the factory relocated to its present facility, just off the Interstate.
Balloon Life asked Sidney if he liked the balloon manufacturing business better than the audio business. "There are some real challenges here. Some of things that we have done we consider leading edge. The main thing that we have attempted to sell year after year is safety. Many of the innovative products and refinements of the old have been made with safety in mind. A speaker at a safety seminar once commented that The Balloon Works has always sold on safety. If that is true, then I think I have done my job."
While the North Pole expedition was a challenging adventure, Sidney has found many of the test certification flights that he has flown at The Balloon Works much more difficult. Flying balloons over gross weight with cool fuel on a hot summer day can be heart stopping.
Always looking to improve the product, Sidney let Balloon Life in on a little secret when we visited the factory recently. "We are going to start making baskets out of kudzu. We have been working on its development for a while. The state of North Carolina is so excited about the prospect they said they will provide us with an endless supply, harvested, cut, cleaned, and delivered to the front door for free."
For those of you who don't live in the South, kudzu is a strong, fast growing vine. One that southerners wished had never been imported from Japan.
After 20 years in ballooning Sidney Conn has gone from using balloons to promoting balloons. Always with an eye toward safety.