Soaring Over Oklahoma
Hot air balloon festivals offer colorful views and family fun.
Photo by Laura Araujo
The first time Chris Sabia went on a hot air balloon ride changed his life. He fell in love with it and eventually became a pilot.
Sabia met his wife, Amanda, when she was sent for a hot air balloon ride. They married in 2000 and she got her pilot license the next year.
The Sabias now travel the country, sharing their passion for ballooning with spectators at hot air balloon festivals. There are three festivals in the state over the next few months, like the Gatesway Balloon Festival on Sept. 15-17 in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
When Chris Sabia was 14-years-old, he went on a hot air balloon ride. He had no idea that flight would shape the trajectory of his life.
“My mom purchased a ride for my dad’s 40th birthday, and I fell in love with it,” Chris Sabia says. “I began working as a balloon crew member and got my hot air balloon pilot’s license in 1994.”
The self-professed aviation junkie went on to get his fixed-wing license and now works as a commercial airline pilot.
His wife, Amanda Sabia, was working as a real estate agent for RE/MAX—a company identifiable by its hot air balloon corporate symbol—when she met Chris.
RE/MAX sent me for a hot air balloon ride and Chris was my pilot. It really was fun,” she says. “I started crewing for him in 1999 and we got married in 2000.”
The following year, Amanda Sabia procured her own license as a commercial hot air balloon pilot.
Over the years, the pair has piloted balloons for a number of national brands including Wonder Bread, RE/MAX, Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s. They are the owners of Kansas City Aerosports in Overland Park, Kansas, where they reside, and have served as balloon managers for several Oklahoma and Kansas-based hot air balloon festivals.
At a recent Oklahoma balloon festival, Amanda Sabia piloted the Wonder Bread balloon. What bread-lovers might not know is the familiar red, yellow and blue Wonder Bread packaging was inspired by colorful hot air balloons.
“Wonder Bread was founded in 1921 with Elmer Cline as the bakery manger. He was charged with naming the new bread,” Amanda Sabia explains. “He visited the International Balloon Race that was taking place at the Indianapolis Speedway and named the product after the wonder of watching those balloons.”
It’s that sense of wonder that drives the Sabias to travel the country and share their passion for ballooning with fascinated spectators.
“My favorite thing is watching the faces of the children—and sometimes that child is 80 years old. Their features are softer, they’re smiling, it’s a very pleasurable experience,” Amanda Sabia says.
One of the highlights of a hot air balloon festival is the evening glow. During a glow, balloons are tethered to the ground and inflated. The pilot regularly fills the balloon with heated air, using a propane burner, which creates a glowing effect.
“The glows are what spectators love. The balloons are like big Christmas bulbs. It’s beautiful, very magical,” Amanda Sabia says.
The glow offers festival-goers an opportunity to see balloons up-close, take unique photos, and chat with balloon pilots and crew.
“Do you have any questions?” Amanda Sabia asks a small crowd as she ignites her burner to keep the balloon inflated. She makes sure to keep it filled with enough hot air so the nylon envelope stays upright, but not so much that it begins to lift off the ground. When the air inside the balloon is hotter—and therefore less dense—than the outside air temperature, it causes the balloon to fly.
She explains to those gathered around her wicker basket that balloons are only able to fly in the morning—just after sunrise—and in the evening—just before sunset. As the sun heats the earth during the day, it heats varying surfaces differently. Asphalt gets hotter than a field of grass, for example. This creates thermal activity that is unstable during the middle of the day. For an airplane this isn’t an issue—but you can’t steer a balloon.
“The only way we can navigate is by going up or down, and if we can find a change in wind direction at a different altitude; then we can go right or left,” Amanda Sabia says.
Before flying, balloon pilots release helium balloons to help them determine what is happening with the wind at varying altitudes. Weather conditions must be just-right in order for balloons to go up: winds must be less than 10 miles per hour, there must be three miles of visibility, no rain, and no thunderstorms in the area.
“Weather is our best friend and greatest enemy. When Mother Nature on your side it’s great, but when she’s in bad mood, forget about it,” she says.
In addition to the evening glows, another highlight of many balloon festivals are the competition flights. Balloon pilots drive a few miles away from the event grounds and inflate their balloons. They fly back toward the festival field and attempt to drop a baggy onto a giant X in the middle of the field.
“When we fly, we fly for accuracy, not for speed. We want to be the most accurate, not the first to the target. The baggy closest to the center of the X scores the highest points,” Amanda Sabia explains.
For spectators, the competition flights are exciting as the balloons can first be spotted as colorful dots on the horizon; they gradually get closer and closer, flying near to the ground as they aim for the target.
Like Amanda Sabia, most hot air balloon pilots are happy to share their knowledge of ballooning with curious onlookers.
“We love to teach people how to do it. Never hesitate to come out and talk to a balloonist,” she says.
Having started with the sport at a young age, Chris Sabia now enjoys passing on his love for ballooning to children and youth, including his 3-year-old nephew, Jax White.
“I would encourage young people to come out and experience it,” Chris Sabia says.
“Bring the kiddos and the grandparents. It’s a family experience,” Amanda Sabia adds.