What Was It Like to Fly the ZooBalloon?

Former employee Bill Sands weighs in, and reveals the most common type of patron mischief.


Bill Sands got a text when he was at work with the news. The place where he used to work closed.

Sands is a bartender — at Tinto in Rittenhouse and at Bar Ferdinand in Northern Liberties — so this is part of the job. Bars open and bars close. But Sands’ old job this time wasn’t a bar or restaurant: It was the ZooBalloon.

The 6 ABC ZooBalloon, in operation since 2002, was deflated yesterday after workers determined it had been damaged too extensively by the recent snowfalls. This was the second iteration of the balloon; it was already decided this would be the last year of the ZooBalloon.

Sands, who worked on the balloon for two seasons in the mid-2000s, reminisced about his time working there earlier today.

How did you come to get a job working at the ZooBalloon?
It was a good while ago. A buddy of mine had just moved down to the city, and a friend of mine was going to an open call for all sorts of jobs. It just so happened that I needed a job, so I went. I talked to the Zoo, and they called me back to talk to me about a variety of jobs. One of the positions they had was the ZooBalloon.

So I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that, that sounds like a blast!”

What did you do for the ZooBalloon?
There were three of us. We took turns. There would always be somebody down on the ground working the lines, there was somebody operating it — it sounds crazier than it is, you actually just push buttons to send it up and send it down — and somebody up giving tours. There’s always somebody in the balloon, somebody down right below the balloon putting flags in the line and there’s somebody with the line operating the balloon.

What do you mean by “putting flags in the line”?
You had to put orange flags on the line [tethered to the balloon]. It was pretty much a regulation to be visible by planes or any sort of low-flying objects. I mean, they’re going to see a huge-ass balloon — but just so they knew that there was a line there and the balloon was tethered. You don’t want it to get cut.

Did you have any experience putting a balloon in the air beforehand?
My boss was this guy Matt [Monfredi], he was a British guy he had been involved in consulting putting up balloons all over the world. And he was with the Philadelphia Zoo at that time. He walked us through everything.

How much training did you get?
Matt, the guy who ran it, showed me all the underground tethering. It wasn’t any intensive military training. He was the guy who, if shit hit the fan, was going to do something. We just had general knowledge of the balloon and what to do.

Was the job hard?
I wouldn’t say it was hard. The downside: It was seasonal. It was a fun job. I had a really good time. As long as it went up. When the wind got too strong — or if it was just bad weather — the ZooBalloon wouldn’t go up. That was the only bummer, because then we had to go down to the swan boats. That was a much less glorified job. And I have allergies, too.

Did you have any problems with heights?
No. I’m sure if it were precarious enough I would. But I was fine with the ZooBalloon setup.

What was the tour like?
It was a little bit of everything. You told them about the balloon — I think it was a 72 feet tall by 114 feet wide helium balloon — and show people all the parts of the zoo. I always pointed out City Hall and [Eastern State] Penitentiary. And just give them a general layout of the city. You tell facts about City Hall, how it used to be the tallest building, and pretty much give them a little bit of everything.

The tour itself was pretty short. I think you’re up in the air for, like, five minutes. You’d just give a minute tour talk and then let people look around.

Actually, I went back to the zoo with my girlfriend this past summer, and they no longer had someone giving tours. It was just a computer. I was surprised.

Did it get really hot?
Sometimes it got really hot, especially if you were the flag person. The whole landing pad was black. You’d be cooking. It was hotter when you were down there as opposed to up in the balloon, because at least you get a change and can catch a breeze up high.

What was the clientele like at the zoo? Were the patrons annoying?
It was mostly families. Sometimes when there were big groups of kids, you’d get people trying to spit off the edge.

Was spitting off the edge the most common type of mischief people would try?
Yes. Another thing that was bad was people wouldn’t keep their arms inside of the balloon. It wasn’t necessarily mischievous. They would reach a camera out over the side, and that could kill somebody if you dropped it and it hit somebody. People would reach their hands outside of the net with a camera.

But people were generally good. It would be: Spitting, the camera thing and — it’s like you’re in a submarine, a comfined space. And if someone acts like an asshole, then that sucks. You’re up in the air with 15 people — that was the maximum — so if someone’s being an asshole, then that just blows. So sometimes you had to be a chaperone of sorts.

Did lots of people get scared because of the height?
Most people were good. It was more when you take off and land. Most people don’t ride in a tethered balloon every day. When it takes off, people go, “Ooh!” Some people would handle it better than others once you got up there. I never had anybody totally spaz out. I had a few people, maybe a handful, who got upset. Generally, it was very pleasant and easygoing.

The landing could be rough from time to time, if the weather was picking up. Because it’s tethered, the operator who’s landing it stops it at the bottom, because you want it to land reasonably close to horizontal to land. Sometimes it was a little bit of a challenge to get it to land. It could cause an abrupt landing. It was never anything crazy.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.