It’s a bird, it’s a plane: It’s a stagecoach balloon
Volunteers like utility clerk Dominic Padilla and his family have made the Wells Fargo corporate balloon program a success for over 30 years.
Dominic Padilla will miss hearing one familiar voice this year as he helps Wells Fargo’s stagecoach balloon soar at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta® in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
His mom, Louise, who volunteered each year greeting curious onlookers and keeping them at a safe distance from the balloons, died July 11, 2017.
The former teacher loved the family’s ballooning tradition so much that her obituary not only remembered her as a dedicated teacher, mother, and friend, but also as a member of the Wells Fargo hot air balloon team.
“My mother was afraid of heights,” said Padilla, a Wells Fargo utility clerk who first volunteered for balloon crew duty in 2001. “She couldn’t go any higher than two steps, but if you told her that it was her turn to fly, she’d be the first one in the basket.”
In addition to his mother, Padilla’s dad, younger brother, sisters, and their children volunteer with the program.
“For my family, ballooning is a getaway,” he said. “Everybody loves to fly — including the nieces and nephews when they get their chance — and they know that they have to come in as a crew person and do work in order to earn that privilege.”
Soaring for over 30 years
Founded in 1986 and based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Wells Fargo’s corporate balloon program is largely staffed by volunteers. Only the pilots, who are specifically selected because of their corporate ballooning experience, are paid.
The company’s balloon fleet includes two traditional, round balloons that take flight each year at the nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta — the largest gathering of balloonists in the world. Wells Fargo also has a special stagecoach-shaped balloon known as “¢ent’r Stage.” The balloon fleet travels to about eight events across the U.S. each year.
Volunteer crew members are the key to each flight’s success. The round balloons have five-member crews, and ¢ent’r Stage, the largest balloon, requires a crew of 25. The crews assemble each balloon in a four-step process:
- Spreading a tarp on the ground.
- Removing the balloon from the cart.
- Laying the balloon out on the tarp.
- Connecting the Velcro tabs sewn into the fabric.
The pilot uses fans to inflate the balloon with cold air as it lays on its side, and then turns on the burners to heat the air in the balloon envelope to bring the balloon upright before launch. Depending on winds and weather, balloons can reach an altitude of 1,500-2,000 feet, with flights lasting from a half-hour to an hour.
A family of balloonists
After volunteering for several years, Padilla got his father involved in 2007, and then the rest of his family followed shortly after.
“After my dad came in, then my mother was next. As we did smaller local events, we were sometimes short on crew, which opened the doors for my brother and sister. As their children reached the age requirement, they were then brought into the fold.” The sights, sounds, and excitement of ballooning, and the friends made while volunteering, enticed Padilla’s family to volunteer along with him.
“When I first started, the bank had six balloons, so we could send a Padilla with every balloon,” Dominic said. “My father worked for the city, so we used to ride with him, and learned all the streets. So we’d be chasing a balloon, and we’d have to go a certain shortcut and could say, ‘OK take this street, go down this street, and it will get you there faster.’ So that was another way in for us as a family.”
‘The go-to guy for all things’
From his first experience in 2001, Padilla worked his way up the ranks to become a crew chief. In 2015, he was named Crew Chief of the Year by the Balloon Federation of America.
As a crew chief and chase vehicle driver, Padilla wears several hats. That includes making sure all volunteers and balloon riders have signed release forms and waivers of liability, supervising the unloading of all the equipment and balloon assembly, and making sure people are in the right place at the right time throughout the process.
At a pivotal point during assembling a balloon, once volunteers have attached the top — called the “crown” — with Velcro straps, Padilla gives them a heads-up that the pilot is getting ready to fire the burners and begin filling the balloon with hot air.
“I’ll go to the top and tell the crown person, ‘we’re going to go hot,’ so that they know to let the balloon rise up gently, and not try to force it down,” he said.
Julie Koontz, Wells Fargo’s balloon program director, said its Padilla’s ability to coach even first-time volunteers through such intricate tasks, and do it all with humor and respect, that has increased the number of program volunteers and made him so popular among balloonists.
“Dominic has the reputation on and off the field as the go-to guy for all things,” Koontz said. “He’s just always here. And on the rare occasions when he’s not here, you’ll hear ‘Where’s Dominic, where’s Dominic?’ because people know what he can do and say, ‘I could really use his help right now. He really packs some muscle!’”
Each year, Padilla uses about a month of his company-provided paid time off to take Wells Fargo’s brand aloft at the Balloon Fiesta and other events in Nevada and Utah.
While his favorite memories revolve around the people he meets and the volunteers who become like family, Dominic believes there’s something unique about ballooning that helps people connect with Wells Fargo better than any other form of advertising.
“Maybe it’s the way everyday people team up to make ballooning happen, but our balloons put the bank on a personal level and have a ‘wow’ factor,” he said. “Each year, customers from Arizona, Florida, Iowa, and other states come up to me to tell me they are Wells Fargo customers, and that our stagecoach balloons are their favorites.”