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Balloon Festival and Fair in Hillsboro takes flight

  • ABOVE: Jim and Caryn Greco of Hampden, Mass., go on a tethered balloon ride during the Hillsborough Balloon Festival and Fair in Hillsboro on Friday.

  • Crew chief Jeff Ratcliffe of Thompson, Conn., prepares a RE/MAX balloon for flight during the Hillsborough Balloon Festival and Fair. Photos by ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • LEFT: Gerry Pothier of Burlington, Mass., helps with a tethered balloon flight.

  • Crew members and volunteers prepare a RE/MAX balloon for flight during the Hillsborough Balloon Festival & Fair in Hillsboro on Friday, July 7, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • The RE/MAX balloon rises above the Hillsborough Balloon Festival & Fair in Hillsboro on Friday evening, July 7, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Scenes from the Hillsborough Balloon Festival & Fair in Hillsboro on Friday, July 7, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Saturday, July 08, 2017

It would seem like the presence of just one hot-air balloon at the Hillsborough Balloon Festival and Fair, as well as the weekend’s iffy weather, would let the air out of the event.

Not so, said balloon coordinator Meg Gaskell. The iconic RE/MAX balloon was booked solid for both tethered and airborne flights throughout the three-day festival, and dozens of visitors crowded around Friday evening as “Big Max,” like a beast of yore, groggily filled with air before springing upright.

“We had some injuries and illnesses, as well as some competing festivals in nearby states,” Gaskell said. “But we still have a full schedule ... many people want to go up, because a lot of balloon festivals won’t let you go up for liability reasons.”

She added: “Either way, it’s not going to make or break the festival.”

Usually, the festival has three to six balloons in attendance, with names like “Thunderbuster,” and “Irish Rover,” according to the festival’s program. Luckily, Gaskell said she had enough notice that two balloons wouldn’t be in attendance, and only had to cancel four flights.

It’s still a shame, she noted, since the flights are a big part of the festival’s fundraising events. But the flights, at $200 a pop, only net $50 for the Lions Club, the Hillsboro Fire Department, and the Greater Hillsborough Chamber of Commerce, which are the festival’s beneficiaries. The rest of the money goes to the pilots, Gaskell said.

Except for Big Max’s crew, which does the festival free of charge in exchange for, well, free advertising. The balloon’s pilot, Chris Mooney, has been coming to the festival for about 22 of its 28 years, and the sight of the balloon’s red, white and blue envelope hovering above the fair grounds is as integral to the festival as its food and rides.

The crew

Chasing the balloon this weekend were father-daughter team Gerry and Michelle Pothier, of Burlington, Mass. They’ve been festival attendants for years – Michelle’s grandparents have a home on Emerald Lake in Hillsboro – but began chasing the RE/MAX balloon seven years ago.

Chasing is exactly what it sounds like, Gerry Pothier said. Once the balloons go up into the air, pilots have little control over where the wind takes them – chasers help them look for flat, safe places to land.

“If they don’t have a crew one year, they look for locals who know the area and want to help,” he said. “It helps to have a second set of eyes looking for a place to land.

Sometimes, a seemingly-innocuous place can be deceiving: Gerry Pothier recalled a flight when Big Max was eyeing a pasture in Hopkinton, only for the owner to come flying out, arms waving.

“He said, ‘You’re gonna scare my prize bull!’ ” Gerry said. “We ended up having to go a bit further. ... A few times we’ve had to land on Route 202, because it was the only flat area around.”

Michelle Gothier, 17, said there’s nothing like the rush of balloon chasing.

“When you lose it and have only your radio to communicate with the pilot, it can be very exciting,” she said.

There’s nothing quite like balloon folk, either, Michelle notes.

“They’re some of the nicest people around,” she said.

They’re quirky folk, too. Jeff Ratcliffe, Big Max’s second-in-command, wears a hot-air balloon shaped earring, which blends with his bushy mustache and aviator glasses. When asked how long he’s been working with balloons, his favorite quip is, “Do you mean today? Because that makes a difference.”

And pilot Mooney is known for occasionally tossing a prayer skywards before his aircraft takes off. He projects an easygoing, lighter-than-air attitude when passengers climb into the basket.

“There’s nothing quite like being in a balloon,” he said, looking out over the fairgrounds during a tethered flight. “It’s different than anything else – much more peaceful.”