Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s a giant panda. And dangling below in the basket is pilot Shelley Caraway, who is also assistant dean of University Studies at TJC.
Caraway grew up in an aviation family. Her grandfather was a pilot in World War II and her dad was a military/commercial pilot, but it wasn’t until she saw her first hot air balloon that she realized she wanted to become a pilot herself.
“I saw my first balloon when I was 13 years old,” Caraway said. “It was then that I knew I wanted to fly balloons.”
Caraway waited for 20 years to pursue her dream and get her pilot’s license.
In fact, it was her husband who helped make her dream possible.
“One day my husband ran into a lady pilot and he told her about my dream of flying. She helped us buy a balloon, and I started taking flying lessons,” Caraway said.
Since then, Caraway has added another balloon to her collection, a giant panda balloon. Her husband knew she collected panda bears and set the plan in motion without Caraway even knowing about it.
“On our 20th wedding anniversary, my husband decided to buy me a large panda balloon. He started secretly talking to a company who makes balloons and on our 22th wedding anniversary the balloon was delivered.”
Since then Caraway and her balloons have gone around the world to various balloon festivals and competitions.
“I’ve competed since 2001 and have been to over a hundred balloon competitions,” Caraway said.
She recently attended the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. It is the largest balloon festival in the world. This year there were more than 700 balloons registered. At these festivals there are several different events.
“In the morning, we usually fly our balloons and at night we have a balloon glow where all the balloons are lit up,” Caraway said.
“Sometimes we visit local schools. With elementary kids, we read them a story and show them the balloons. With the middle school kids, we explain the science and dynamics of ballooning,” she said. “If the weather is good, we’ll take them outside to see the balloon and how big it is.”
As well as competitions and festivals, Caraway also serves on the Balloon Federation Board of Directors as the Southwest Director.
“I visit with people and work on committees to help with federation safety.”
Each year the Federation holds a National Hot-Air Balloon Camp at TJC. This camp is for teenagers ages 13-18 who are interested in aviation. For five days, they experience multiple aspects of the aviation field.
Caraway says it’s a wonderful learning experience.
“We show them different career paths they can pursue through aviation such as weather forecasters. They learn about piloting and being on a group crew,” she said. “We also take them to places like the NASA balloon facility in Palestine.”
Caraway is now looking towards the future.
“We are looking at festivals to go to. So far, we have been invited to events in Mexico, New Zealand, Holland and Germany,” Caraway said.
However, Caraway is not the only balloonist in East Texas. There is a small community of balloonists in the Longview area.
“Our community consists of a dozen balloons,” said Guy Gauthier, owner of Balloon Repairs of East Texas.
Gauthier has been a balloon pilot for 36 years and has gone to many of the major festivals.
“I used to go to 25 festivals a year but after 36 years, I don’t do quite as many anymore,” he said.
His business also plays a major part in some of these festivals.
“We inspect and repair balloons from all over the region. We have balloons as far away as California that come to be inspected.”
Inspections cover every aspect of the balloon.
“We inspect every thread and stitch on the balloon, look at the basket for integrity, and go through the fuel system and the burner. If it meets all of those requirements and can stand another year, it passes inspection,” Gauthier said.
Gauthier has four balloons that he travels with.
“There’s the Texas Heritage balloon which has all of the Texas flags on it; Starfire which is blue and has white stars and white pennants; Killroy which has the character Killroy; and a little one-man balloon that I take out when I get the urge to go fly.”
One of the most popular balloon festivals in the area is the Great Texas Balloon Race that is held in Longview each year. This is a balloon competition filled with balloons of every shape and size that come together for events such as the race, concerts, and food. This year’s competition will be held July 9-11, at the East Texas Regional Airport.
For more information on Caraway and her balloons visit her Web site at www.pandaballoons.com
For more information about the Great Texas Balloon race, visit their Web site at www.greattexasballoonrace.com.