Daily photos by Jonathan Palmer|
Drew Gentry helps crew the landing of “Cool Ray” in a field off Kirby Bridge Road. Gentry’s company EnerSight Fuels Inc. is a corporate sponsor at the Alabama Hot Air Balloon Jubilee Festival this weekend and is providing biodiesel for lights and food vendors.
Sons take family
ballooning tradition to new
By Patrice Stewart
Most boys go fishing or hunting with their dads while growing up, or settle for a game of catch in the backyard. Not Robbie Wahl and Drew Gentry.
From the time they were toddlers, the Decatur natives grew up chasing balloons — hot-air balloons — because their dads and moms enjoyed the pastime.
Now grown and starting their careers, these second-generation members of Decatur ballooning families are staking their claims in the sky over Point Mallard this weekend.
Robbie, 24, earned his balloon pilot’s license two months ago and gets to command a balloon on his own for the first time at this Alabama Jubilee. He took time away from his architecture job in Birmingham to fly “Cool Ray,” the yellow and blue balloon with a happy face wearing shades on top that belongs to his balloon pilot parents, Mike and Cathy Wahl of Decatur.
Drew, 22, has shared crew duties with Robbie for years and this weekend will reunite with his lifelong friend and handle ground crew duties for the new pilot. But he has another role, too.
Drew is a partner in a new biodiesel company in Huntsville, EnerSight Fuels Inc. He decided to make his company a sponsor for Jubilee, so you’ll see his company name on the banner on Robbie’s balloon basket. The bright yellow EnerSight truck will be on the Jubilee field with a thousand gallons of biodiesel ready to power the generators for vendors and lighting.
“Cool Ray” sails over Morgan County Fairgrounds.
“This is the first load of biodiesel to come into the Huntsville-Decatur area,” said Drew, who arranged to get this shipment from Manchester, Tenn.
It won’t be the last load, however, because he plans to have his biodiesel plant running by October (see related story).
“My parents, Phil and Lynn Gentry of Decatur, have been involved in ballooning my whole life, and I’ve been crewing practically since I was a baby,” Drew said. “Now that I have a company, I thought I could help out by sponsoring a balloon.
For Drew, Jubilee brings back memories of cold, early mornings.
“You never forget getting up that early as a kid, and I remember going out in the fields and listening to them talk about where to launch from and whether it was too windy to launch,” he said.
“As a little kid, they’d let me hold the fan, and then I graduated to hold the mouth of the balloon during inflation. Now I’m up for everything, including crown lines.”
He has always crewed for the Wahl family for whatever balloon they were flying.
His dad recalls taking Drew in an infant carrier for a brief appearance at his first Jubilee when he was only two weeks old. Phil has crewed for his friend Mike Wahl for about 24 years, since before both boys were born, and has watched them grow up with ballooning.
“I think Drew and Robbie are Decatur’s first second-generation balloon team members,” he said.
Now that his son is about to get his degree in business and marketing from The University of Alabama in Huntsville, Phil said, “I think he very quickly realized that this was a chance for him, through EnerSight, to get involved in a new way, by offering something that Jubilee needed. People sponsor balloons for a lot of reasons, and this will help show what biodiesel is all about.”
Mike Wahl said involving the whole family in ballooning is a good way to keep youngsters out of trouble. They come home and go to bed earlier when they know they have to get up early to help get a balloon in the air, and following a balloon across the area in a vehicle keeps them busy.
Phil Gentry, left, Robbie Wahl and Mike Wahl, far right, prepare “Cool Ray” for takeoff. Phil has crewed for his friend Mike for about 24 years, since before both their sons were born, and has watched them grow up with ballooning. Robbie is piloting his father’s balloon at this weekend’s Jubilee.
“They got a lot of trips out of it, too, to balloon festivals in Natchez and Corinth, Miss., Centralia, Ill., Memphis, Gulf Shores and Albuquerque,” he said.
The Wahls took Robbie and his twin sister, Molly, and often Phil and Lynn Gentry went along to help, accompanied by Drew and his younger sister, Lauren.
“They got used to meeting new people and going new places. It broadened their horizons, and that helped them when they left for college,” Mike said.
Mike, who got his balloon license in 1985 and a commercial license shortly after so he could teach others, was Robbie’s balloon instructor.
“He got his lessons cheap — it just cost him a few breakfasts,” he said.
Mike began by flying the Decatur tourism balloon and bought his balloon about seven years ago. “Cool Ray” didn’t fly at Jubilee last year, when Mike began flying the Daikin balloon, but Robbie will be in charge of it this year.
“He’s getting my balloon, my truck and most of my crew,” said Mike.
Phil will probably continue to crew for Mike on the Daikin balloon, while the rest of the Wahl and Gentry families were expected to help Robbie.
“I’ve been sitting on the balloon trailer since about age 3 and began helping Dad out with real jobs, like manning the fan, when I was 10,” said Robbie. “I decided I wanted a balloon pilot’s license when I was 13 or 14.”
He was getting a lot of flying hours in his last couple of years at Decatur High, but in 2001, when he started a five-year architecture degree program at Auburn University, he didn’t have much time to devote to ballooning. He got back into it after joining Hendon & Huckestein Architects in Birmingham.
“You’ve got to be a little crazy to do ballooning and architecture,” he said, “but it’s hard to make a living flying balloons.”
Robbie has always been drawn to the skies and may decide to learn to fly airplanes eventually.
“Balloons are so peaceful and quiet, though, and the views are great,” he said.
He has more than 40 hours of instruction time in balloons, more than needed for his license. Dave Sullivan from Georgia, a designated examiner and also a balloon repairman who flies at Jubilee, came over to handle Robbie’s exam and flight test.
“Anybody can fly a balloon once it’s in the air, but landing is the hard part — whether it’s in a good spot or bad, it’s always exciting and always different,” Robbie said.
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