Statesville, N.C. — Balloons and crews from across the country converge in Fuquay-Varina on Memorial Day weekend for the WRAL Freedom Balloon Festival. About a dozen crews will inflate balloons that got their start right down the road in Statesville.
The company now called FireFly has changed brands and changed hands over 50 years in existence, but one thing remains the same – made-in-the-USA hot air balloons.
Each balloon starts with reams and reams of fabric, woven by hand. They are built under strict supervision with attention to every detail.
"Everything is handmade right here under one roof, crafted with pride in the U.S.," said general manager Keith Gantt.
With 37 years in the business, Gantt has had his hands on a variety of designs and thousands of balloons.
FireFly makes balloon baskets out of wood and rattan. The material is strong and doesn't conduct electricity if there is an accident with power lines. Its triangle-shaped baskets are much stronger than a rectangle and have an advantage at impact when landing the balloon, Gantt said.
FireFly, one of the largest manufacturers of sport and commercial hot air balloons in the world, has floated through ups and downs in the economy over five decades and currently employs five very dedicated people.
FireFly pilot and sales manager Jack Ponticelli got his start at a festival like the one in Fuquay-Varina.
"My wife took me to a balloon festival 36 years ago, and I said, 'I gotta do this.'"
He says it gets in the blood.
"It's a passion," he said. "Most of us do it for a passion, not a lot of money. We have a lot of fun. We meet a lot of interesting people, and it puts a smile on my face."
Jimmie Mounts, a bender and weaver, joined FireFly in 1988 when he got out of the Navy.
"I just kind of fell in love with it over the years, grew a passion for it," he said. "You can work with your hands, see what you made, see everybody happy with your product, and if they want to come back for more, that makes me very happy."
There 11 pilots registered to fly FireFly balloons at the WRAL Freedom Balloon Festival.
Buddy Carter - Flying Rainbow II
Tony Colburn - Dream Chaser
Mark Fritze - Freedom Flyer
Patrick Grogan - Don't Worry
Clarke Harbold - Elsa
Randy Lee - Spellbound Spirit II
Ian Leonard - Hoppy Daze
Robert Sarratt - Eagles Wings
Daniel Sasser - Hang Time
Anthony Seeger - Carolina Twist
Ray Smith - Hot Air Affair