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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 5, 2009

Serving as crew for hot-air balloon festivals takes Voorheesville couple Down Under

By Anne Hayden

VOORHEESVILLE — What began 10 years ago as a way to pass a boring August night has turned into an addictive hobby, and resulted in a month-long international trip for Mark and Karen Robertson of Voorheesville.

In August 1999, a hot-air balloon festival was being held in Greenville, and the Robertsons, with nothing better to do, decided to check it out. As they wandered among the balloons, a pilot from New Hampshire with no crew asked if they would be interested in helping out the next day.

Karen jumped at the opportunity, and Mark said he wondered what she’d gotten them in to. “I thought the rest of the group of people I was with were going to lynch me when they found out we’d have to come back the next morning at 5,” she said.

The Robertsons found out that crewing a hot air balloon took a lot of work. They had to unload all the equipment from a truck, lay out the balloon, tether it down, and hold its throat open to allow air from industrial-sized fans to blow in. Then, when the pilot was ready to light the burners and inflate the balloon, they had to hold onto the tethers until he was ready to take off. After that, the Roberstons jumped into the truck with a walkie-talkie and followed the route of the balloon until it landed.

“It was hard work, but it was a lot of fun,” said Mark.  When another festival was held in Glens Falls the next month, the Robertsons decided to go and volunteer to crew for anyone who needed help. The pilot they crewed for offered to give Karen a ride in the balloon, and “that pretty much did it,” said Mark. They were hooked.

The next summer, the couple from New Hampshire, for whom they had crewed in Greenville, invited them up to a festival to raise funds for a charity called High Hopes. The Robertsons forged a close friendship with the New Hampshire couple, and crewed for them at four festivals that year, Now, said Mark, they crew at an average of 11 festivals each summer. “We have more than our legally allotted amount of fun in a summer,” he said.

This year, the Robertsons are getting to take what they say is “the trip of a lifetime.” A pilot friend of theirs, Keith Sproul, was invited to bring his birthday cake-shaped balloon to two international festivals, one in Australia and the other in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, Sproul was injured in a ballooning accident, and unable to make the trip. He decided to hire a pilot, and asked the Robertsons if they would be willing to accompany his wife on the trip, and help crew the balloon.

Mark, a bio-med tech at Albany Medical Center, and Karen, an administrative assistant, were both able to get the time off from work. They have known for about a month that they would be going on the expenses-paid trip. “We pass each other in the hallway now and just go ‘woohoo!’,” said Mark.

The Robertsons left on Feb. 28, and go to the Australian festival first, which will go on for eight days. They will then travel to New Zealand, where they will sight-see for a week before going to work at the seven-day festival there. Both festivals wanted the birthday-cake balloon because they are celebrating anniversaries.

The Robertsons noted that the natural progression of the ballooning hobby is to crew, then get a pilot’s license, and eventually own a balloon or two, but Karen said the couple gets enough pleasure out of crewing and the only balloon they’ll ever own is a remote-controlled one.

“It’s a fantastic hobby,” she said. “We just wished we’d gotten into it earlier.”

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