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East County Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2013 4 years ago

Meister of the skies

by: Nick Friedman Managing Editor of Arts and Culture

In every field, and for every skill and profession, there is an expert — someone whose knowledge and experience makes him the foremost authority on the subject. Investors have Warren Buffet. Architects had Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Florida Wine and Balloon festival has Bill Whidden: the balloon meister.

Whidden began his career in the livestock business and was first introduced to the world of hot-air ballooning in the early 1980s. A friend, who had planned to visit Whidden’s farm, wanted to take advantage of the spacious fields, and he asked if he could bring his hot-air balloon.

“I thought, ‘What on earth would a grown man be doing with a balloon?’” says Whidden, who had never heard of the activity. “But, he took me on a flight, and I was hooked. I ordered one from him the next week.”

Whidden earned his commercial pilot’s license and began flying recreationally. Before long, he was winning competitions, and he managed to turn his hobby into a successful career. Today, Whidden considers himself semi-retired, but his years of competitive experience have earned him a wealth of knowledge, which he brings to the table as a balloon meister, or organizer at hot-air balloon festivals around the world. He travels with his wife, Trish, to attend between 20 and 30 hot-air balloon events annually to lend his expertise.

Whidden’s career has taken him on flights with Ted Turner over Niagara Falls and to countless other scenic destinations around the world. Having served as balloon meister at more than 100 events, and with more than 2,600 hours of flight and tether time under his belt, he’s more than earned his title of “meister.”

For the Florida Wine and Balloon Festival, Whidden recruited pilots to man 22 hot-air balloons at the festival grounds at Premier Sports, in Lakewood Ranch. He’ll keep an eye on weather reports, organize the logistics of the balloon portion of the festival and keep things running smoothly.

For $225, attendees can take a 30-minute to an hour-and-a-half balloon ride, depending on weather conditions. The price includes a general admission ticket and a customary champagne breakfast following the ride. Rides are available at 7:15 a.m. Saturday, April 6 and Sunday, April 7, at the balloon festival grounds, and Whidden says it’s an experience people won’t soon forget.

“I remember my first flight,” he says. “It was exhilarating, and I felt free. I still see that look on a lot of the first-timers’ faces. It leaves them breathless.”

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