Inside the Basket - Lynn Tillery, Balloon Fiesta Navigator
March 24, 2021
Lynn Tillery is a Launch Director at Balloon Fiesta who has been involved with the event since 1982.
In this month’s Inside the Basket, she walks us through a typical Balloon Fiesta day and shares her favorite tips for those interested in earning their Zebra stripes.
1. Give a brief overview of your Balloon Fiesta role.
Not only am I a Launch Director, or Zebra, as we have been so lovingly christened, but I am a Section Lead. What this entails is being in charge of the North Section of the field. I am in constant contact with the 25 members of my section, but I’m also in contact with the South Section and most importantly the Chief and Assistant Chief of the Launch Directors.
Before Balloon Fiesta, I keep my part of the team notified of all information coming down to us from the Balloonmeister and all those we work with. We make sure all of the team participates in our training and are kept current with any changes.
During Balloon Fiesta, as instructions come down from Michelle Healy, our Chief, I pass the information on to the team. I help in keeping the launch safe and coordinated by watching over the section and helping them in any way possible. Some days it may be mostly talking back and forth to the team giving them instruction, but I also step in and help launch the balloons when and where needed.
2. How did you become involved with Balloon Fiesta?
My first experience with Balloon Fiesta is like that of so many of us. In 1981 I had my first experience crewing. I had the chance to fly, but I was just as happy to help on the ground. In 1982, I became a part of the Hot Canary Team. My husband, Greg and I would go crew and go to various rallies in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.
During this time, I would volunteer for various tasks Balloon Fiesta needed help with. I enjoyed all of this, but being around Neida Courtney (now Courtney-Bueno), I wanted to do more. I felt the need to do something more for the ballooning community, as well as Albuquerque and for New Mexico. I let Neida know I would like to be a Zebra and part of the Launch Directors. I took me about 3 years to achieve my dream, due to being pregnant and then with a little one I didn’t feel I could leave. Finally in 1990, I became part of the team.
Lots have changed since I started. My first day on the field, I was assigned to work with Joel Johnstone. I trained and watched him that first day and started actually launching, with his keen eye and instruction, the next day. Now, it’s a two-year training program with in-class instruction before Launch Directors can hit the field. First-year Zebras in Training (ZITS) do not launch, they stay with an assigned trainer. That is the reason for their red hats.
Second year, they are able to launch but still have a trainer.
Now with 30-31 years as a Zebra and 40 years volunteering, I love the activity as much now as I did in the beginning.
3. What does a typical Balloon Fiesta day look like for you, as a Launch Director?
A typical day for me as a Launch Director-Section Lead goes something like this:
Beginning at 3:00 a.m., I get up and get ready for the day. This includes eating breakfast and gathering the gear we will need for that morning’s launch. At 5:15 a.m. there is a Launch Director briefing, followed by pilot briefing at 6:00 a.m. At the end of pilot briefing we head back to our sections and prepare for launch, talking briefly to pilots and crews, passing on information and gearing up for launch.
Once we get the go-ahead from the Balloonmeister through our Chief, we notify our section to have pilots start cold inflation. When given the “word”, we start the pilots heating their balloons or “Going Hot”.
At about 6:45 am, after the National Anthem, the launch begins. I watch each team member to be sure they are performing their job in a safe manner and according to proper procedure. While on the field, not only am I using a radio on the Officials frequency, but also using a separate one for my team.
After the launch, but while the field remains open, we stay on the field watching the balloons so if they come back to the field, we are there to help them with a safe landing. Once the field has closed, we are then able to go back to our trailer in order to debrief. Here we gather any information and identify the good things that may have happened, gather up the launch tickets from all members of the team. Once debrief is over, I usually hop on my four wheeler and get the launch tickets to the propane staff for their information.
It is then time to grab something for lunch and then go to the RV for a nap before everything starts over again at about 3:00 p.m .if there is an evening activity such as a glow. On a glow day, we’re lucky to get to bed by 10:00-10:30 pm - only to start again at 3:00 am the next day.
4. What items do you consider to ensure that a balloon can safely launch?
While being around the balloons, we make sure each has a tie-down that has been properly tied to their launch vehicle. We try to see that each pilot has someone attending their inflator fan.
While walking the field, we look for any damage to the balloon and/or gondola. If we see anything, we contact the Safety Officials to come check it out. They are all pilots and have been trained on the safety of balloons.
During launch, before we will give a pilot the “thumbs up” we make sure there is no traffic both overhead and around them and that it’s safe to give them clearance to fly.
5. What tips do you have for those interested in becoming a Launch Director?
Those interested should have some experience around balloons. They do not have to be pilots. They should know there are trainings before, and possibly during, Balloon Fiesta that they will need to attend. They will be putting lots of hours on the Field as well as a lot of miles on their bodies. We know they could easily walk 60+ miles during the course of an average Balloon Fiesta. They need to be healthy and get into walking: training well before Balloon Fiesta.
They need to know we need a commitment from them. They are in a 2-year training and we would like them to commit for minimum for 3-5 years, hopefully longer. They will need to be ready to work all 9 mornings and at least 2 evening activities. They need to be on time to our meetings both before and during Balloon Fiesta so that they won’t miss any important information.
Besides that, all they need do is go to the Balloon Fiesta website and fill out the application.
Once we receive the applications, the Launch Staff will review them, and have the applicants meet us for an interview. The number of new ZITS each year depends on the number of openings we have.