Learning to love the chase


J-T reporter describes working on the Darth Vader balloon crew

It’s always been a childhood goal of mine to ride a hot air balloon, so naturally, when I was offered the chance to ride one for work, I jumped on that offer as soon as I could.
After waiting and following fellow balloon riders around for an hour and a half, I learned I’d be crewing the Darth Vader balloon, aptly called “Darth” by everyone around. Little did I know I’d be crewing the most challenging balloon at the festival.
Unfortunately, there were some miscommunications on everyone’s end. There was a haze of expedience, slight mania and random French phrases thrown around with our balloon pilot, Benoit Lambert of Belgium, and the rest of our crew feverishly trying to inflate the balloon, connect it to the basket and get it off the ground. However, after getting the balloon ready to go, it was already leaving without me.
One of our crew members rushed up to me as the balloon started to take off, with a growing look of concern spreading on my face. It was just my luck to learn that this was a ride for two and, if there were wheels on this balloon, there wasn’t room for a third one.
Defeated, I stowed away in the backseat of the other crew member’s pick-up truck and we went circled around the airport’s landing strip a couple of times to “follow” the balloon. However, in the horizon was an unsettling sight, seeing that the accompanying Yoda and Darth Vader balloons were flying lower than all the other balloons.
Darth Vader had landed, but it wasn’t a part of the plan.
Our truck raced along to the balloon, cutting through the grass at the airport to somewhere near Coleman’s Crossing Boulevard. We tried to reach Lambert and his passenger, but we were encumbered by the fact our truck couldn’t get past a giant dirt mound and a large ditch. We also saw the Yoda balloon trailing its way to the Meijer’s parking lot, with us fearing it was going to land in the pond nearby.
We had to park outside of Meijer and had to travel on foot, as the truck was too big to traverse the small space between the bean field and the ditch. After nearly rolling my ankle on a misjudged jump, we scrambled to the balloon, as other crew members were acting as human anchors to keep the balloon from flying away. I could only imagine this was because he didn’t want to fly into the Meijer, but seeing we didn’t have enough land to pack up the balloon, he took off again. The chase was on again.
Yoda was deflated and secured safely in the Meijer parking lot, but Darth Vader’s fate was unknown. Getting back to our truck, we tried to follow the balloon, cutting through traffic and making circles around Coleman’s Crossing Boulevard. The question on everyone’s minds was: where was that balloon going?
We finally found it after our many loops around Route 33, precariously placed close enough to not fall into a small ditch and not near the bean field on Wildwood Lane. Darth Vader had been rescued.
We then had to pack up the balloon and transport it in our truck, all in a random person’s front yard. The neighborhood’s denizens came flocking to the balloon, staring through their phones in awe as the giant Darth Vader head loomed over them. Afterward, some of the house’s neighbors came to help us pack up the balloon, with all of us rolling around to coax out the last obnoxious air bubbles from the balloon for more than half an hour.
Despite such a short ride, Lambert’s passenger, Becky Cronkleton, was so ecstatic about the experience. Cronkleton said she’s a cancer survivor, and after receiving her chemotherapy treatments last year, she won a ticket to ride a hot air balloon at last year’s All Ohio Balloon Fest. Unfortunately, due to the weather, the ride was cancelled, but she would be able to ride this year. She said she felt fortunate about this ride, as she considered it to be two rides rather than one.
In the end, I didn’t feel so bad. Sure, I didn’t get to live my childhood fantasy of flying in a hot air balloon, but this was Cronkleton’s ride. She earned her ride that was overdue, and was given double.
I consider it a unique experience to behind the scenes working with a diligent crew for Darth Vader’s balloon. Sure, it was sweaty and grueling work, but even those odd experiences have their own charm.


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