What do you do when you’re asked to help launch a new hot air balloon festival? If you’re Gary Moore of Lake Havasu City, Arizona—a hot air balloon pilot since 1992—you incorporate the best aspects of all the festivals in which you’ve ever participated. Moore has flown at events in 40 of the 50 United States, and in 19 countries, so he had a lot of experiences from which to draw.
“I was the only balloonist in town at the time,” recalled Moore, who five years ago sat down with members of the local Lions and Rotary clubs to plan the first Havasu Balloon Festival and Fair. “I wasn’t the balloonmeister the first year, but they kind of rope you into it,” he laughed.
Moore quickly got help from people like Dean Baker. Being around the balloons that first year hooked Baker, a private pilot and owner of a local real estate firm. He sold his Beechcraft Bonanza, bought a hot air balloon, and now handles marketing for the event.
The fifth Havasu Balloon Festival and Fair was held Jan. 16 to 18, and brought 78 balloons to an island that can be accessed only by driving over the London Bridge (Yes, the one from England that since 1971 has connected Lake Havasu City with an island resort.); by boat; or by hot air balloon. More than 20,000 people were expected to attend the festival, which raised about $125,000 for local charities.
The event’s unique location “is a pretty good draw,” with desert terrain surrounded by mountains and spliced by the blue waters of the Colorado River and Lake Havasu. Pilots are intrigued by volunteer local boaters, who receive special training in towing balloons and will retrieve those that drift over—or across—Lake Havasu. “Everyone wants to get a picture of their balloon over the London Bridge,” Moore noted. “And a lot of people are coming out of areas that don’t have decent weather this time of year. Overall we’ve got things dialed in pretty good.”
Pilots come from around the western United States, and as far away as Missouri and Illinois—as well as Canada and, this year, Belgium, England, Germany, and New Zealand. “We have a lot of them that have been here all five years,” he said. “We provide a good pilots’ tent with breakfast and a meal each evening.” Attendance is by invitation only, because space on the island is limited, and there’s a waiting list of 100 pilots. “We stress safety, and the best way to do that is to surround yourself with good pilots—pilots you can trust,” Moore said.
Local wind sometimes give Lake Havasu City conditions similar to the famous “box” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, home of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta—widely regarded to be the world’s largest hot air balloon festival. There, under the right conditions, wind currents circulate and allow balloonists to circle the launch field. Lake Havasu’s currents are more subtle. “Sometimes it’s a very, very thin layer and if you keep your rate of descent very, very slow, you can use those currents to steer,” Moore explained. “Albuquerque is the mecca of balloonists. We’re becoming the mini-mecca.”
Winds permitting, each day of the Havasu Balloon Festival concludes with a balloon glow—balloonists inflate their crafts, and then illuminate them with bright blasts of flame from their powerful propane burners. “We moved it just a little bit later this year, to give the wind time to lay down,” Moore said. The popular evening events are always well attended, frequently with larger crowds than the morning launches—although to be fair, not all pilots launch from the island; many launch from a location in the city that will allow them to land on the island.
As for Moore, he already is hoping for good weather at next year’s event. “This year we just hit it out of the park,” he said. “We did 10 out of 10 [scheduled] inflations—that’s just unheard-of amazing. Good weather makes you look like a hero.”