Andy Gross is one of the lucky ones who can.
As a young boy, Andy talked of making his living as a hot air balloonist – a career plan fed by trips over Ohio, Michigan and Indiana in his family’s balloon.
But as he matured, Andy came to the conclusion that his dreams of being a full-time balloon pilot probably weren’t going to come to fruition, so after graduating from Eastwood High School in 2003, he studied graphic design at Owens Community College, earning a degree in commercial art in 2006.
However, his passion for ballooning still remained.
After graduation, he took a chance and sent an e-mail to Cameron Balloons US, the manufacturer of the largest-selling brand of hot air balloons in the world, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“They were looking for someone to work in graphics and also to run a large-format ink-jet printer, which is used to print photo-realistic images onto balloon fabric,” said Andy, who now lives in Toledo. “Fortunately, I learned how to use similar equipment while working at a printing company in Toledo while I was in college, so I got the job.
“When I told my friends and family, they all said, ‘that’s the perfect job for you,’” he said.
Simply put, Andy’s job entails taking a design or logo and adapting it to fit and look good on a hot air balloon. “How difficult that is all depends on the design,” Andy said.
“Typically, we place our artwork on the equator of the balloon,” he said. “If you have a horizontal image, generally not much adjustment will be needed, but a vertical image placed on a balloon – which is basically an upside-down teardrop – will become distorted.”
Such was the challenge of adapting the NFL shield logo for application to a hot air balloon that would be flying at this year’s Super Bowl. Cameron Balloons constructed two balloons for Super Bowl XLII - one featuring the NFL shield and Super Bowl XLII text, plus banners emblazoned with the New England Patriots and New York Giants logos, the other balloon featuring the Super Bowl logo and two banners with the Patriots’ and Giants’ helmets.
“The NFL shield took quite a bit of distortion for it to look correct,” Andy said.
“We start by working on a flat, two-dimensional grid in Corel Draw,” he said. “That is where I design the color pattern of the balloon and it is also where I will do any adjustments, distortion or any other work to the artwork.
“There is no computer program that will do the distortion for me automatically,” he said. “Any adjustments or distorting is done for lack of better words by hand.”
When adjustments are made, the design will be placed on a three-dimensional model of whatever type and size of balloon will be used for testing and approval by the client.
“We have seven different types of balloons ranging in sizes from 34,000 cubic feet - a one-person or a ‘hopper’ balloon with a chair harness - up to a 315,000 cubic foot balloon that can carry around 20-22 passengers. (If that sounds big, consider this - Cameron Balloons’ sister company in England has made a 600,000 cubic foot balloon that carries 32 passengers.)
The company also makes specially shaped balloons, like the Disney castle, an eagle, a space shuttle and a shoe.
With so many balloon styles, each job is different and poses a unique design challenge, Andy said. “The first balloon I worked on was for Frito Lay’s Flat Earth brand of potato chips, which had a lot of ink-jet artwork.”
Artwork can also be applied to balloons on a less permanent basis, through appliqués custom-fit banners. “That way, designs or logos can be removed at any time,” he said.
“There are pilots who make corporate ballooning their living – that is, they are paid to fly their balloons with a company’s logo or message,” he said.
Though he has given up the idea on ballooning for a career, Andy hopes to get trained and licensed to pilot a balloon for his own enjoyment.
“That’s one thing that I plan to do, hopefully some time within the next couple of years,” he said, adding that he’d like to get his own balloon.
“It’s not that much different than aspiring to buy a car,” he said, estimating a sport balloon might run about $30,000 for an entire system, depending on the size and style.