By Aileen Marshall
Have you ever watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and wondered who all those people under the giant balloons were? I had the privilege to find out for myself in 2002. A Macy’s employee I knew invited me to join the balloon vehicle team. It has been a real thrill these past twelve years to be part of such a classic American event.
For those of you not familiar with the parade, it has been a tradition in New York for years. The parade started in 1924, organized by a group of Macy’s employees. The 1927 parade featured the first giant helium character balloons. Until 1998 about two dozen balloon handlers managed the ropes attached to the balloon. That year two Toro Workman vehicles were added to each balloon to add stability. Attending the parade has been part of a Thanksgiving routine for many families in the metropolitan area.
To take part in the parade, one must be a Macy’s employee or sponsored by one, as I am. The first year I had to attend a class at Macy’s with very detailed information on how the balloons fly. I also had to attend two practices. Finally I had to help at the press event a few weeks before the parade. In subsequent years it is still required to attend at least one practice.
In the class I learned about how a balloon is created, and things such as properties of helium, drag, blow down angles, and free lift. I was impressed by how much flying these balloons involve principles from sailing and aviation.
During the practices, early on a Saturday morning in an empty Meadowlands parking lot, I learned to interpret the pilot’s hand signals. The pilot walks backwards in front of each balloon, issues commands to direct the flight of the balloon, and makes sure it stays within the “safety zone”, the area between the curbs. I learned about emergency landing and about deflation procedures. Since I had my position is vehicle manager, I had to learn about the Toro Workmans. The front vehicle acts as an anchor and is attached to the “super patch” at the center of the balloon with a rope, somewhat like an umbilical cord. This line is used to determine the flying height of the balloon. The rear vehicle acts as a guide, like a rudder on a boat. My job as a vehicle manager is to maintain radio communications between the pilot and my vehicle team. I also watch out for potential obstacles along the way, and track the position of the tether line attached to that vehicle.
Each year Macy’s introduces the new balloons to the media in early November at a press event. The identities of the new balloons are a closely guarded secret until then. (There are six this year!) NBC, which covers the parade, and other networks are there. It is always a little exciting to watch the news that evening and look for glimpses of yourself and your friends there.
Specific assignments are mailed out in early November. I report to the New Yorker Hotel at 6:00 a.m. parade morning and stand in a very long line in the cold to get my coveralls and radio. It is rather surreal to see 34th Street at dawn filled with people dressed as clowns or cartoon characters. Buses take us to the staging area near the beginning of the parade route. Then I find my balloon and report to the pilot. After getting our instructions and radio check, we try to keep warm while waiting for our cue to launch. I find that my adrenaline pumping in anticipation of the job I have to do and the thrill of being in the parade helps to keep me warm.
While on the parade route, I do need to focus on my task. Yet, it is such a kick to hear the crowds cheer as your balloon approaches, even to hear them ooh as a gust of wind blows the balloon to one side. It is satisfying to see the children look at us with such awe, knowing I was once one of them. Glimpsing friends and family who come to watch is encouraging. These are the rewards for all the practices and getting up so early in the morning. This will be my twelfth year and I still get a buzz out of being on the balloon team.
The parade starts at 9:00 a.m. Thanksgiving morning at 77th Street and Central Park West. It proceeds down Central Park West to 59th Street, and then turns onto 6th Avenue to 34th Street in front of Macy’s. It is broadcast on NBC from 9:00 a.m. to 12 noon. For one of the best New York experiences, come and watch the parade!