ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – “Let the fun begin, huh?” crew chief Sheri Onwiler laughs as she and the rest of Ham-Let’s crew gear up for the first day of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
They’re up long before the sun, getting a workout before breakfast.
“1, 2, 3!” The crew lifts the gondola. It’s a whopping 450 pounds and so is the envelope.
Ham-Let’s crew comes from all over North America.
“I live in Kansas City, Missouri. Bob’s from Philadelphia, Janet and I are from KC,” said Onwiler.
They’re together for nine days in the name of ballooning.
“Crewing is vitally important. Without crew, we can’t do what we do,” said Ham-Let’s pilot Doug Gantt.
Gantt is in constant contact with his crew from the moment they hit the field.
“Hamlet’s coming out now right? Or no? No. Okay. Okay, okay, see you in a few,” Onwiler chats with Gantt before pilot’s briefing. “We have everything out, getting ready to put the burners on, tarps are out, fans are out. Okay, Okay. Bye.”
The two have been working together for 16 years.
“He’s very safe, he’s very anal about everything as far as safety, he won’t fly when it’s dangerous and we have a lot of fun,” explained Onwiler.
Onwiler knows the rundown to a “T”, but her responsibilities extend beyond getting Gantt off the ground. Not only is she responsible for keeping her crew safe, she also has to keep spectators out of harm’s way.
“We need to move back and out so you might want to go to one side,” Onwiler addresses a crowd of spectators. “You’re still going to have a fabulous view of everything, but we just don’t want to hurt you.”
Yet, everyone on the crew is invaluable. Each has a job to do and every job is important.
“Here’s what we’re going to do, Mario’s going to be on the crown line, Bob’s on the throat,” Gantt spouts off each of his crew member’s assignment.
Once the crew readies the balloon for lift-off and all its passengers are on board, they send it on its way.
Their next task is to leave the field as quickly as possible, which is not always an easy feat.
“There are so many spectators, you have to kind of clear the way and be nice about it,” Onwiler said.
From there, the crew keeps a close eye on their balloon, keeping in touch with the pilot via radio.
“We switched channels two or three times because it was breaking up and we couldn’t communicate and cell phone isn’t the best option but sometimes we have to use it too,” Onwiler explained.
The goal is to arrive at the landing spot before the balloon, but that’s not always possible. Luckily, the balloon community is like a close-knit family, ready to help out other balloonists when they need it most.
Another requirement of the job is handing out their coveted cards.
“We like to be friendly to everyone so that people come back and they want to be part of the pig balloon,” said Onwiler. “You want it to be a good experience for everyone and you want everyone to like it, like ballooning and like Fiesta and just have fun.”
In fact, they’re almost as serious about fun as they are about safety.