All About Decatur's Balloon PilotMarch 03, 2021

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I Grew up in Hartselle, Alabama graduated from Morgan County High School in 1973. I have lived in Decatur since 1980.

My first job was at a little place named Branded Burgers in Hartselle, then Point Mallard for the summer of ’72 and ’73.  I worked for Central Bank Computer Service from ’73 to ’75, and then Mock and Forbes Electrics for a couple of years,  I worked for Anderson Office Equipment between jobs and then Sound Distributors for 3 years, when Sound Distributors closed  I went to work for Wolverine Tube and ended up in the machine shop, I left Wolverine in 1985 and was hired by Saginaw/GM and when they started winding down the plant here I retired as a Tool and Die Maker in 2006.

Mom told me even as a baby in her arms, any time that an airplane would fly over, I would watch it as long as it could be seen.  I took my first airplane ride when I was 12 with my brother and his instructor, Mr. Miller, out of the Hartselle airport not long after the Hartselle Airport was first opened and fell in love with flying.

I started flying myself in 1977, but did not get my pilot’s Certificate until May of 1984, after buying an airplane in 1983 to finish my lessons.

While working at Wolverine Tube, one day Howard Martin, who was in HR, came to me after seeing that Decatur was looking for a volunteer to train to help fly the Decatur / Point Mallard Balloon, and said “Decatur is looking for a Balloon Pilot, And I Think You would be a Good One!’.  That was sometime in the later part of 1984 and while I was going through a divorce, so I started thinking what a good way to get to fly and learn how to fly a balloon and a way to get out and meet new friends.

I remember the first time I saw a Balloon, I was working at Sound Distributors across from the Gateway Shopping Center.  The Decatur Balloon was Brand New and they came to the Shopping Center to inflate it for one of the First Times.  I went to the Alabama Jubilee as a date to watch the balloons fly.  Getting there as the balloons were coming into Point Mallard, I watched as one of the balloons was coming into what we now call The Reagan Field”, as they got close to the field over Flint Creek, they were lower than the trees, they raised up just enough to come over the trees and brushed the top of one tree and then dropped down into the field, I remember running over to the basket and my girlfriend and I handing on to it to help them get settled and stopped.  I Also remember tell my girlfriend as we were going back to the car, Those guys are crazy to land like that!!

Fast forward to 1984-1985 when the Decatur Tourism Bureau put an article in the Decatur Daily saying they were looking for a volunteer to help fly the Decatur / Point Mallard balloon, and thanks to Howard Martin for seeing it and coming to me to suggest I become a Balloon Pilot.

There were three of us that were selected ( or crazy enough to volunteer) to become Balloon pilots, Make Wahl, who was a member of the Jubilee Committee, Jim Arnold, one of the security guards at Point Mallard, and myself.   We had Jim Nelan, a Delta Captain and a Commercial Balloon Pilot.  Jim would fly up from Louisiana when he wasn’t flying for Delta and give the three of us a flight lesson in the Decatur Balloon.  Mike and I were the first to solo and Mike got his Pilot’s Certificate and I got my rating for LTA (Lighter Than Air) in the fall of 1986, I finished Jim up over the next couple of years after I got my Commercial LTA rating. In 1987 I instructed Art Thrash and Lisa Terry and helped them get their LTA Pilot’s Certificate.  Art when on to fly the Decatur Balloon until here retired from flying a few years ago.

I have flown numerous balloon flights in the Decatur Balloon for the CVB, given thousands for tether rides for the CVB in the Balloon and help to promote the City of Decatur with the Balloon program and in many other ways.  I have also flown all 3 of the Decatur Balloons.   

Over the past 35 years I’ve flown the Decatur Balloon for many of the events and have been a Alabama Jubilee Committee member.  My first Jubilee as a member was 1986, and then was quickly thrown into the fire and was elected President of the Jubilee in 1987.  Since then I have served as Vice President several times, was President again in 1991, and have been Balloonmister more times than I can remember.  The Jubilee had survived for the first few years with a shoe string budget and funds were always tight.  In 1991 we had a rainy weekend and had been able to save money on propane, so I told the Jubilee Board I was going to put any moneys I could into a saving account for future events and to

have seed money and a “Bank” if we needed it in the future. We managed to survive on sponorship moneys that came in each year and to hold the event with out going in debt but not to grow the event.  In 1998 the committee had a proposal to sell tickets for food and a few activities during Jubilee.  I went down to Fort Lauderdale with Vicki Morese and here husband Al to an event she was helping with that was selling tickets for food, to see how it worked and the way thing were done.  I came back to Decatur and helped Vicki persuade the Jubilee Board and Committee to give the ticket sales a try and helped set the ticket sales up for that year.  In doing this, we were able to keep the vendors honest and start collecting Sales Tax on their food sales to go back to the city of Decatur and Morgan County.  We were also able to start taking out a small percentage to help with the expense of putting the Alabama Jubilee on.  ( For those that may not know, The Alabama Jubilee is a Self Funded Event, Not run by the City of Decatur.  The Event is financed by Our Sponsors and their Sponsorship.  The Jubilee provides Rooms for the Balloon Pilots that come to Jubilee each year (Around 180 rooms nights each year), Propane that is used for each pilot during the Jubilee weekend, a small gift to each pilot for coming to the event, a welcome party for our Sponsors and Pilots and committee on Friday afternoon before the event, Port-a-lets that are on the Jubilee Field, Prices for the Pilots for competitions, Bands and sound system, The Fireworks, and several other things that go into putting on an event of this size.)

In 2003, for the 100th anniversary of Man’s first Powered flight, I was instrumental in getting General Charles “Chuck” Yeager to come to Decatur for the Alabama Jubilee.  I had the honor of picking General Yeager up at the Huntsville airport and introducing his coming to Jubilee at a press conference at the Huntsville airport and on Stage at the Jubilee.  I also was General Yeager’s escort during Jubilee and on Saturday afternoon gave he and his Girl Friend  a balloon flight. After about 10 minutes in the balloon, General Yeager, me “ You Know you could put an Auto Pilot on this this, Right?’  After we had crossed Flint Creek and were out close to I 65, General Yeager noticed the Fresh  Payment leading up to the New Priceville City Hall and Noted how much it looked like a Runway, asking IF I could hit it.  Well, I was thinking to myself, I’m going to do every thing I can do make it to that “Runway” and ended up landing dead center of the road with the chase crew waiting on us. General Yeager seemed to be inpressed and said it was a lot better landing than his only other balloon flight where they hit hard and drug across the ground for what seemed to be a mile..

In 2008 after Jubilee was almost shut down because of a issue with the propane, I came up with a plan to have a Jubilee Propane system that we owned as to not have another issue like we did that year.  I proposed that we buy a large propane tank and make our own propane system.  I with the help of the State Propane Inspector, designed a system, found a place at the Decatur City Fire School, and then myself and Lee Johnson put in several hour installing the system.  The Propane dealed and the State Inspector, inspected and help make a couple of changes to the system, and we had it up and running for the Jubilee the next year.  Doing this insured that we would always have a place for the pilots to fuel after their balloon flight during Jubilee and saved Jubilee from paying a premium price to have propane pumped during a Holiday weekend.

Up until a few years ago we had always rented a storage building to keep our “Stuff” in.  Propane hoses, stairs for the stage, signage for the Jubilee field, and many other things that would cost several thousand dollars each year if we did not have a way to store and re-use them.  I proposed that we buy a storage building for our “Stuff” and talked to the Fire Chief and Mayor at that time to have the building put out by our propane system.  We have now saved enough rent money to building and have twice the room we had when renting.

Something that we will introduce this year at Jubilee is our Sales Trailer.  I purchased a new Balloon trailer for myself about 15 months ago.  As I was driving back from South Georgia from picking my trailer up, I started thinking it would be nice IF we had a place to sell tickets that instead of the open trailer we used for years, (And THANK YOU PEPSI for loaning us your trailers), we could have a trailer built that the sales people would be indoors, with good lighting, and maybe even Heat and Air conditioning to sell our Jubilee Bucks for food and actives at Jubilee.  With today’s happenings this gives a lot more security to our ticket sellers and also will keep from having runners moving tickets from one place to the other.  I proposed the Jubilee buy a custom made trailer for our ticket sales and planned it out with the help of a couple of other committee members, ordered it and went down and picked it up last year so we can have it ready for this years Jubilee.

I’ve gotten back in to flying airplanes in the last couple of years. I’m a member of the Civil Air Patrol Hartselle wing and  fly CAP  Cadets and help with other mission flown by the Civil Air Patrol.

I also own 2 other balloons, BlackMagic and Serendipity that I do Balloon Flight in around the area and take to other events that the Decatur Balloon is not sent to.