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Chester County Press

Balloon festival draws 13,000 to New Garden Flying Field

06/23/2015 01:14PM ● By Richard Gaw

(Photo by Jeff Kahan) A look inside one of the many balloons during its preparation.

By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer

In many ways, the ninth annual Chester County Balloon Festival, held last weekend at the New Garden Flying Field in Toughkenamon, had everything.

There was a zip line ride; interactive aeronautical games for children; a beer garden that served Victory beer, and wine from local vineyards; vendors; scuba diving lessons; a fireworks celebration; helicopter and airplane rides; live music and fire-fighting demonstrations by the Avondale Fire Company.

Most importantly, the festival held the great anticipation that brightly-colored hot air balloons would decorate the southern Chester County sky for three consecutive days.

They almost did.

Due to the combination of anticipated rain, thunder and gusty winds, festival organizers canceled a portion of balloon-related events that ruined the experience of a small but very vocal number of festival goers, who shared their disappointment on the festival's Facebook page. By festival's end, the festival had compensated for the disappearance of the main attraction by turning what was advertised as a balloon festival into a Father's Day playground of fun, with all other activities events fully up and running.

In hot air ballooning, wind is considered the most critical weather condition element, and an optimal wind speed should be between four to six miles per hour. Heavy winds often cause a caving in of the balloon that places increased load on both the fabric and the basket. During heavy winds, the balloon will often rattle back and forth and be taken farther than the pilot has room to fly, as well as complicate the severity of the balloon's landing.

Throughout the weekend, the festival kept those interested in attending the event informed about the status of balloon-related events.

"Just like when you go to the airport to fly in an airplane, safety is the #1 concern," event organizers wrote on the festival's Facebook page. "Imagine a 10-story tall piece of fabric... It can easily be thrown around in high winds. The pilots and crew have a very tough job to do by keeping themselves and their passengers out of harm's way. Firefighters, EMS and Police have a motto, 'everyone goes home.' Our top priority is safety, even if it means disappointing a few people.・

"...The balloons and pilots have come a long way to participate and are more disappointed than you are, and try as we might as a group we haven't learned how to control the weather!・ wrote Rick Schimpf, Balloonmeister with the Chester County Hot Air Balloon Festival, on the event's Facebook. ・As advertised, this is a weather controlled event and we thank those who purchased tickets online for your faith in the event. We, the festival management planned it to be a great event whether or not weather safe for ballooning including the fireworks and kid zone! Weather is out of our control but safety isn't!"

While the vast majority of attendees used the festival's social media to share their appreciation for the event, more than a handful took the festival organizers to task for the event's limited visibility of hot air balloons, as well as its poor parking, lack of proper signage, and add-on costs that were tacked onto the $10 entrance fee.

"Nowhere near enough balloons!・ one attendee wrote. ・What a let down,・ another post read.

Despite the weather impact, festival organizers were still able to hold a balloon glow event on Friday evening, as well as tethered balloon flights on Saturday.

"Unfortunately, we are a weather controlled sport and in order to balloon safely, we need to have primo weather conditions, and the weather wasn't cooperative this year,・ said event organizer, Debbie Harding. ・There were a possibility of thunderstorms and rain showers, and there were rain showers after the fireworks on Saturday. We liken [heavy winds] to a giant canvas bag of air rolling around, and it could be very, very dangerous. We don't want to hurt people, but have a safe event.・

"This is the first year that the Chester County Balloon Festival has been held at the New Garden Flying Field, and I haven't seen this many people at the airport in probably twenty-something years,・ said New Garden Flying Field Director, Jon Martin, who estimated festival attendance to be 13,000. ・This being the first year of the event here, I think there are things we can work on to make it better next year, but this a great venue for hosting this type of event. It's been great for New Garden Township.・

Social media was not the only forum for those who had issues with the festival. In her prepared statement read before the New Garden Board of Supervisors on June 22, Christine Witherspoon, whose farm borders the New Garden Flying Field, pointed out the "natural amplification by the quarry of the noise at the airport" during the festival which, she said, "made life difficult for residents and businesses alike."

"The fireworks were impressive, but they were experienced as far away as Chadds Ford!" she said. "Imagine the impact in the valley by the quarry. The 100+ horses at the [Brandywine] Polo Field, and the dogs at the kennel were all terrorized by the noise." She also complained about the increased air traffic that flew over her farm during the weekend -- mainly from helicopter and airplane rides.

Witherspoon, a former candidate for the township's Board of Supervisors, urged the board to establish reasonable rules and regulations that "carefully weigh the health and welfare needs of the residents and businesses of New Garden Township against the economic benefit to the airport and its users." She called for establishing flight paths and minimum elevation requirements over private property in the township.

In his summary of the festival before the Board of Supervisors, Martin thanked the 65 volunteers who assisted in the preparation and take-down of the event, some of whom came from the Future Aviators Camp, the annual summer camp held at the New Garden Flying Field. Moving forward, Martin said that he will meet with the local emergency services team, New Garden Township Police Chief Chief Gerald Simpson and festival volunteers, in discussing how the festival can be improved upon in 2016.

"The thing I liked most about the event was to see the faces I've never seen before at the Flying Field, and exposing those people to what we do in New Garden Township, aviation related," he said. "That's the purpose of what I'm focusing on -- to make the airport a pillar of our community."

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