Rising to The Occasion

The PROs at Johnny on the Spot help the Great Texas Balloon Race soar to greater heights.
Rising to The Occasion
<<< Flames leap into the bottom of a balloon to raise it into the air as a pilot prepares to fly at the Great Texas Balloon Race. (Photos by Pete Litterski)

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Vickie Hatcher is an old hand at rounding up the crew and the equipment each summer to serve crowds that brave the summer heat to enjoy the spectacle of the Great Texas Balloon Race. Hatcher has been the manager of JOTS (Johnny on the Spot) Rentals in Longview, Texas, for 10 years.

For the 2012 Great Texas Balloon Race, Hatcher worked with a team of four employees including crew leader Mike Humphries, Debbie Pritts, Jake Franks and Jonathan Goodman. Although Hatcher spends most of her time indoors working on sales and scheduling deliveries, service calls and pickups, when a major event rolls around, it is all hands on deck as the company's special events units are rounded up, cleaned and prepared for delivery.


JOTS is a subsidiary of Longview-based AP Equipment & Rentals, which rents everything from folding tables and chairs to heavy-duty lifts and loaders. AP, with a second store in Mount Pleasant, Texas, acquired JOTS in 2002. Although JOTS was established 15 years ago, Hatcher says its history can be traced back to the 1970s when, "John Cannon started out building his own units in his backyard."


Hatcher says JOTS has been handling the portable restroom needs of the balloon race since the company's inception and organizers of the event are usually happy to come back to the company each year.

"Sometimes, they've sent it out for bids, but generally they just stay with us because they know about our service. We're very competitive with our prices and very aggressive with our service." Several weeks after the 2012 event, Hatcher said, "I talked to Larry Aldridge, our contact on the board, and he said next year we're going to need a few more (units) on the ground."


The 2012 Great Texas Balloon Race, held July 27-29, is operated by a non-profit corporation with a volunteer board and traces its roots to the grand opening of the Longview Mall in 1978. Dr. Bill Bussey, a Longview dentist who holds several world records in hot air ballooning, agreed to fly over the city with a banner touting the mall's debut. Bussey developed a good relationship with mall managers Frankie Parsons Riggins and Mary LeTourneau and the three agreed the mall would host a "Great Texas Balloon Race" on its first anniversary.

After a disappointed fan arrived too late to see the balloons launch for the 1979 event, Bussey and several other balloon pilots developed an idea for an added event that would be more fan friendly. They convinced fellow pilots that they could give spectators a great show if they would team up after dark and tether their balloons to the ground while igniting their burners to illuminate the colorful balloons. What is described as the world's first organized balloon glow in 1980 was a hit with local fans and the evening crowds began to grow.

After a brief hiatus in 1987-89, the race was re-established in 1990, and soon moved to the grounds of the East Texas Regional Airport, just south of the Longview city limits. The event continued to grow with food vendors, musical entertainment and a children's activity center, with the 2012 race attracting an estimated 27,000 spectators.


To handle the demands of the balloon race, Hatcher rounds up most of her special events units (JOTS maintains a separate set of restrooms to service its construction and oilfield customers.) For the 2012 balloon race, JOTS placed 85 regular PolyPortables Integras, three PolyPortables and PolyJohn Enterprises handicapped units, four PolyPortables holding tanks to capture vendors' graywater, two T.S.F. Company, Inc. hand-wash stations and a custom-built restroom trailer from Advanced Containment Systems, Inc. It features three stalls and two sinks on the women's side and one stall, a seven-foot urinal and two sinks on the men's side.


Hatcher says JOTS begins its balloon race contract by placing two units at the airport two weeks in advance for use by setup crews. Those units are serviced once a week. While the seven-day Balloon Federation of America U.S.A. Nationals in Longview overlaps the local event, the bigger crowds come for the weekend festivities, starting Friday morning and drawing big numbers Friday and Saturday nights.

The regular plan to deliver the restrooms on Wednesday and Thursday went a bit awry for the 2012 race because Wednesday dawned with a watermain break near a Longview industrial park resulting in several large manufacturers calling JOTS and requesting emergency deliveries of portable restrooms so they could keep employees on the job. With JOTS crews busy delivering units to the local factories, Hatcher adjusted the schedule. After prepping many special events units Wednesday afternoon, the crew arrived early on Thursday to begin loading units on three trailers and carrying them 10 miles south to the airport. The crew made three deliveries on Thursday and two on Friday.

"As it was, we were only about a half-day behind because we were done by lunchtime Friday," says Hatcher, who pitched in stocking units with bathroom tissue and deodorizer before they were loaded on the trailers.


Once the Great Texas Balloon Race is under way, Hatcher assigns a team to service the event. "Generally, I send out three trucks and three drivers. They clean out all of our (units) and holding tanks, and they service any RVs that request it. The vendors can pay for the RV service, but for the VIPs (balloon teams) it's free because that's part of our bid."

The trucks assigned to the 2012 event included a Kenworth T-300 with a 1,100-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater Best Enterprises stainless steel tank; a Chevrolet 5500 with a 400-gallon waste/200-gallon freshwater Best Enterprises slide-in unit with stainless steel tank; and an International 4300 with a 1,100-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater Keith Huber unit with a steel tank. The fleet uses Conde vacuum pumps from Westmoor Ltd. and Masport pumps.

The cleaning team arrives at the balloon race site at 4 a.m. and is generally done by about 8:30 a.m. Hatcher says there are several reasons for the early morning schedule: It helps her team avoid the heat of the day (often 100-plus degrees in July) and, "Nobody is around to get in the way. It goes fast that way."

The balloon race wraps up by mid-day Sunday each year and the JOTS team clears its equipment from the airport on Monday and Tuesday.


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