Karen and John Rich

Karen and John Rich, on Thursday May 16, 2019, at The Green. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

When an unusual entry in the Great Texas Balloon Race lost its way a few years back, John Rich answered the call for help with his son-in-law.

That year, a man had tied helium-filled balloons to a chair for the race, but he had no control over his flights, said Karen Rich, John’s wife.

“He went a little farther than he thought he did,” John said, and ended up somewhere on an oilfield pad. John said he had been sitting on the back of a truck with his son-in-law at the race — they both work in the oil and gas industry — when balloon race officials asked them to track the man down. They found him around 11 that night.

“When we got to him, he had mosquito bites on top of mosquito bites,” John said, describing how the man landed in a river bottom. John works in operations for Buffco Production,

“It was not a place you wanted to be at that time of night,” said Karen, who works for the investment company Stifel as a sales assistant.

The evening marked a turning point in the Riches’ work with the balloon race.

“We got out our map, and next thing you know, we’re landowner relations,” John joked.

John and Karen Rich first became involved in ballooning about 25 years ago, initially as a crew and then on the measuring team. About 10 years ago, their roles changed.

“Dr. Bill Bussey called me one afternoon and said I’d like you to help out with landowner relations,” John rich says, referring to the man credited with starting the Great Texas Balloon Race in Longview and creating the balloon glow.

“I went to the first meeting and found out I was chairman,” John said, laughing.

The Great Texas Balloon Race will take flight over East Texas again from July 26 to July 28, with hundreds of volunteers such as John and Karen making the popular event possible.

“We could not do the race without an army of volunteers,” said Rhonda Bullard, chairwoman of this year’s race. That includes the volunteer board of directors who work yearround to produce the race.

“The operations team starts three weeks out starting to turn the airport grounds into the little city it becomes for the event,” Bullard said. “Then, by the time we get to the actual event itself … we’ve got 350 volunteers out there in the course of the weekend….”

That includes crew members, people working at the gates and people working in operations, she said. It also includes the Riches and the rest of the landowner relations committee, which usually consists of six to 10 people.

“We couldn’t have the race if we didn’t have landowners that agreed for pilots to utilize their properties to come down on or to fly across and make it to targets,” Bullard said. “(The landowners relations committee) is a pivotal group of people that go out and cultivate relationships with these landowners to make it possible for the pilots to reach the targets and then find an appropriate landing space beyond the targets, to get down every day.”

“Once they go up, they’ve got to come down somewhere,” Bullard said.

The Riches said they got involved in ballooning because they were friends with several people who were pilots. They were invited to be crew members, and they were hooked.

“It’s the people, and it’s so much fun seeing all the people enjoying the balloons,” Karen said.

Balloon race mornings start about 4 a.m., John said, when he meets with the balloonmeister and safety officer. They consider the direction the wind is blowing as they determine where the balloons can land based on the various targets.

His committee, however, works year-round.

“If somebody comes up with what they think is a good location either to take off from or land — we’ll try to go out there and talk to them when it’s not 7:30 on a Saturday morning. We literally work this year-round, updating the maps, making everything as current as we can.”

The maps are coded red, yellow or green: Red designates areas that balloonists can only land in in case of emergency; yellow areas also should be avoided unless the balloonists have no other option; and green areas are cleared for landing.

“Most of it is situated around livestock — and Eastman Chemical Company. Eastman is a red area,” John said. “They don’t want you going down in the plant. That’s just in the plant itself, the plant proper. The outbound areas are fine — if you want to go down in a swamp. That’s fine. We’ll get you out.”

If pilots happen to land somewhere that hasn’t been coded on the balloon race maps, he or she will make contact with the landowner as well so the site can be added to the map.

“We’re updating it constantly,” John said. “The biggest thing is communication. If we know they’re going a certain direction, we’ll go out there and we’ll make sure there’s no problems before anybody hits the ground or tries to land. If it’s all clear we’ll let the crews know it’s clear to go in this pasture.”

Landowners might have specific needs depending on the how the land is used — gates that need to be locked, for instance, or cows that need to be avoided.

“We try to make it as peaceful and as enjoyable for the balloonists and the landowners,” John said. “Some of them don’t want you to land, a lot don’t care, a lot of them, if they know they’re coming, they’ll wake the kids up, call their neighbors.”

The landowner relations committee does more than just get approval to use people’s property, Bullard said.

“There’s all kinds of negotiations, with us being good stewards of their property and making sure that everything is left exactly like we find it,” Bullard said. “The landowner relations committee — they make sure that happens, that our landowners are well taken care of and appreciated for allowing us to make use of their property.”

One of the best things about working on the committee, John said, is the Friday morning special shape balloon event held in Longview. The balloons inflate at various locations so people can get an up close look at the balloons. Sometimes host sites provide breakfast for visitors.

“We worked real hard the last few years to coordinate areas where the special shapes (can locate) where the kids could be out there and be around them,” he said. “It’s just fun watching the kids, seeing their reactions.”

The special shapes show will be held from 7:30 to 9 a.m. July 26, Bullard said. Locations will be posted on the balloon race’s website, www.gtbr.net. She said that sponsors to some degree are allowed to choose sites where the special shapes set up that morning, but John and his committee again play an important role, making sure the locations have enough space away from power lines and with enough space for the crowd. Traffic also is a consideration.

Balloon race days find landowner relations committee members in their vehicles, communicating with each other by two-way radios, taking phone calls from pilots and other balloon officials, monitoring winds and if, when and where the balloons are taking off from and landing.

“It can get crazy at times,” John said.

“It’s really a lot of fun,” he added. “One of the really nice things about it is you get to see every balloon.”