In 1783, the first hot air balloon took flight carrying three passengers: a sheep, a rooster and a duck.
Since then, the sport has drastically changed. Two pilots from Blount County, Tom and Pat Roush, are testaments to that fact. Between the two pilots, they have 84 years of piloting and 60 years of ballooning experience.
“(Pat) flew actively for about 15 years,” Tom said. “About the only flying I do now is competition flights. I’ve flown 1,200 tasks, and I’ve made something over 2,000 flights.”
Last Wednesday, Tom and Pat, along with pilots J.C. Smith and Jill Waxmonsky, inflated Tom’s balloon on the football field at Lanier Elementary School. The balloon, called “D-Blun,” put a smile on the children’s faces, as they learned about balloon travel as part of their studies on transportation. Tom and Pat’s balloon is 77,000 cubic feet, which proved a massive spectacle for the Lanier students. The balloon, big enough to hold 77,000 basketballs, kept the children’s attention in the cool morning air.
“This is so cool,” third-grader Jaclan Blake Saylor shouted above the crowd. “I’ve never been this close to one. This is awesome!”
The visit to Lanier wasn’t the only show for the Roushes last week. Over the weekend, Tom, along with 20 other pilots, participated in Pellissippi State’s Seventh Annual Balloon Festival. The Roushes, who are mainstays for the Pellissippi festival, took part in the weekend festivities at Pellissippi’s main campus.
Tom served as Balloon Meister for the weekend event, and he incorporated an idea into the balloon “glow” that he learned about on a recent trip to Austria.
Tom said a village in St. Wolfgang, just south of Salzburg, gave him the idea that he used this year at the Pellissippi festival.
“They had their symphony orchestra come out, and we choreographed the balloons behind the orchestra. When you saw the videos of it, wow! So, we came back and started doing them here.”
The Roushes didn’t use a symphony orchestra at Pellissippi, but songs such as “Rocky Top,” “Star Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America” and “I’m Proud to be an American” were played while the balloons were inflated. Then the Pellissippi State balloon rose above the rest with an American flag draped over the basket.
“To a balloonist, glowing a balloon is like taking an airplane out to the end of the runway, running it wide open, then taking it back to the hanger,” Tom said.
The glow was not the only thing the pilots took part in this weekend. Skills competitions were held, one of which was on accuracy and consisted of flying to a spot and dropping a long-tailed, sand-filled marker to mark a spot.
Smith and Waxmonsky came in from Michigan specifically for the scoring of the competitions at Pellissippi. The Roushes are also judges on the national level but wanted to be participants for this festival.
“Michigan is a hotbed of flying, and they’ve worked at two nationals and (are) about to work at a world, I think.”
“It’s all about putting on a good show and keeping everybody safe,” said J.C. Smith.
One of the competitions involve leaving the university and flying to a target. “One of the competitions is called the hare and the hounds,” said Smith. “The hare will take off. When he lifts off the ground, the rest of the field can begin inflating. Then, they will take off and fly to wherever he lands and pitch out the targets.”
In the Saturday morning events, Tom finished fourth and fifth. Saturday evening, the hare and hounds competition took off with pilot Jim Hendershot as the hare. D-Blun was the second balloon out of the hounds to take chase, but due to the winds and difficulty of the place Hendershot landed, only two pilots were able to score.
The Roushes have had some exciting times with their balloon and have flown all over the world, including flying in the Alps. The visit to the local school, however, was special as well. Smith said the enthusiasm of the students was something he has never seen before. Each time he fired up the balloon, the students yelled, clapped and cheered.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I’m having a good time. These kids are so entertaining. They are having a blast with this.”