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A lot of hot air

 

As it rises from the dewy earth at dawn, a hot-air balloon slips the bonds of science to become poetry. But first, in a birth that melds art, craftsmanship and technology, it must rise from fiber, fabric and wood on a factory floor. That’s the role of FireFly Balloons Inc. in Statesville.

The 18-employee company is one of the nation’s largest balloon makers — it has only three or four competitors — with a production goal of 100 balloons this year. They will range from as tall as a five-story building to double that size. Many will be classically round, in rainbow hues. Others will be shaped to an owner’s fancy, such as the one for an evangelist that depicts Jesus. “When they inflated it, it was on a foggy day and, as it came up, it looked like Christ rising from the clouds,” General Sales Manager Jack Ponticelli says.

The company was started 34 years ago in Charlotte, then moved to a chicken farm in Iredell County. It changed hands in 1982, moved to Statesville and became Balloon Works. In 2005, a Statesville-based holding company, Dawson Asset Man- agement Inc., bought it. One thing hasn’t changed. “Everything’s done by hand,” says Ponticelli, a balloonist, former jet mechanic and one of the company’s principals.

Balloons are stitched from a closely woven polyester coated with a flexible acrylic sealant to make it airtight. If the balloon requires graphics, the design is projected onto the fabric as it hangs on a wall at the 28,000-square-foot factory, then traced in chalk, cut and appliquéd onto the shell. As many as 36 gores, or sections, are stitched into a large balloon.

Safety is paramount. One innovation developed here is the use of ropes stitched into channels in the skin of a balloon. That relieves stress on the fabric — in other designs, the entire shell is under stress — and prevents rips or tears from spreading. Hanging beneath the balloons are traditional wicker baskets crafted of reed and rattan.

A balloon usually takes two to six weeks to build, depending on complexity. The Jesus model took about a year and cost the customer more than $100,000. Most are cheaper — about $30,000. Who buys them? Hobbyists, balloon racers, businesses that sell hot-air balloon rides and companies seeking an aerial bill- board — Re/Max, Hardees and Michelin among them.

The final step — the freedom of the air. “It’s not where you’re going but how you’re going to get there. It’s the most basic form of aviation,” Ponticelli says. “You fly with the wind.”