A Golden Anniversary: Ballooning community commemorates first flight in Iredell
BY KARISSA MILLER
More than 30 balloon pilots and enthusiasts huddled in the parking lot of the Newton Plaza Shopping Center on Friday evening under a tent to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first hot air balloon flight in Iredell County.
Due to hot weather, they were unable to launch a balloon. Instead they spent the evening reminiscing about the early days of ballooning in Iredell County.
A framed photo montage documenting Bill Meadows' first flight and the accomplishments of legend Tracy Barnes were on display.
Kristie Darling, owner of Big oh! Balloons in Cool Spring, reflected on the 50 years.
“I just want to say thank you to Bill. If it wasn’t for Bill putting Tracy on this and if it wasn’t for Tracy getting Bill started none of us would be here,” she said.
Meadows founded the Carolina BalloonFest in 1974 — long before the advent of cell phones and moving maps — and has been going strong ever since.
The festival has become the signature event in Iredell County and is as much a part of the fall season as football and being outdoors.
“Ballooning isn’t just about flying the balloon – you go out and hang out with these people, go to dinner, tell stories, ballooning is a community as well,” said Duncan Dunavant, one of the youngest ballooning pilots.
Meadows credits the success and longevity of ballooning in Iredell County to all the people who have worked hard to make their own contributions to the sport.
“As you see, Tracy’s involvement in ballooning and what I’ve done is kind of complimenting each other," Meadowns said. "It all started with Tracy bringing that balloon up here. All of this stuff happened because of our relationship. Things we did together and things we did independently."
The 50th commemoration on Friday was a tribute to all those people, the pioneers like Barnes and other movers and shakers working behind the scenes.
About Ballooning in Iredell County
Bill Meadows took his first hot air balloon flight in Iredell County on Oct. 4, 1969. That maiden voyage marked the first hot air balloon flight in the Southeast.
The flight began at Newtown Plaza and covered 4.3 miles before the balloon touched down just east of the Statesville airport.
“Usually when you first take off, you're picking leaves off a tree and maneuvering amongst the trees,” Meadows explained. “You’re not moving fast so you don’t get the sense of flying in that you’re not moving in the air at a high rate of speed.”
Meadows founded the Balloon Association Ltd. in 1969, the Carolina BalloonFest in 1974 and the National Balloon Racing Association in 1982.
Tracy Barnes, balloon builder and pioneer
Oct. 4, 1969 is also about a balloon pilot named Tracy Barnes from Charlotte. Barnes agreed to teach Meadows how to fly a balloon. Barnes, a balloon building craftsman and designer, is also a big name in ballooning.
“Tracy was an innovator. Most baskets were square and he built the first triangle wicker basket,” he said.
The two men became good friends and shared a passion for bringing people together with ballooning.
In 1974, Barnes moved The Balloon Works from Charlotte to Rhyne Aerodrome near Love Valley and started manufacturing balloons.
“We did a lot together. I ended up being his sales director. We sold 1,048 balloons in about eight years’ time,” Meadows said. “Our biggest month was February 1979. We took in about 50 balloon orders.”
Balloons back then, he said, sold for around $10,000 a balloon; in today’s dollars that would be about $40,000 or $50,000.
The balloon factory was known to be busy at that time. Meadows said the people that worked in the factory were true craftsmen and suited to the work.
When it came to work options available at that time, Meadows said it was hard to beat working at the factory.
“They could dress any way they wanted. They could take breaks when they wanted. They were pretty free to do their thing. Instead of having a job where you had to put on a suit and tie and be a salesman or something. That was a time when being a hippie was in style,” he added.
They later became the largest balloon manufacturer in the world before they sold the company in 1982. Renamed Firefly Balloons, his balloons continue to be manufactured in Statesville.
Barnes died in January 2019. He received awards from the Balloon Federation of America, the Smithsonian Institute and the Queen of England (with the Wirth Medal).