Spectators at this year’s Balloons Over Vermilion may hear an old line from a popular cartoon character: “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!” And they will see one thanks to Cartoon Balloons, which is sending two of its popular special shaped balloons to this year’s festival – the puddy cat and yellow bird hot air balloons that bear a very striking resemblance to two Looney Toon cartoon characters, Sylvester and Tweety. Florida resident John Cavan owns Cartoon Balloons, has a fleet of 11 special-shaped cartoon character balloons and employs other pilots to fly them at events all over the U.S. and even out of the country. One of those veteran pilots, Tom Steinbock, of Louisville, will be at Balloons Over Vermilion July 12-13 at the Vermilion Regional Airport in Vermilion County, along with another pilot, flying two of those special balloons – puddy cat and yellow bird.
With 30 years of experience hot air balloon piloting, Steinbock said flying special shapes isn’t that much different than flying traditional shaped balloons.
“Yellow bird is the easiest to fly,” said Steinbock, who has participated in the three previous years of Balloons Over Vermilion, flying one of his personal balloons. “They all fly about the same. You have heat, and they go up.”
Steinbock owns four of his own balloons and spends time flying them in addition to his day job, running a construction company in Louisville and two side jobs, flying the REMAX balloon for events all over Kentucky and flying all over the U.S. and occasionally in foreign countries for Cartoon Balloons.
This year, he’s booked every weekend until two weeks after Thanksgiving.
“I just love flying period,” he said. “And I like special shapes, because the kids love them so much more.”
Immediately after last year’s Balloons Over Vermilion, he packed up and headed to Taiwan and spent two weeks flying for Cartoon Balloons at a 45-day festival in that country.
“We were gods over there,” he said with a laugh. “I bet we had our picture taken 10,000 times.”
Steinbock said he flies at about 30 events a year, and he looks forward to Balloons Over Vermilion on the lineup.
“It’s one of my most favorite events across the country. It’s the people, the location and the history,” he said, referring to the previous long-running hot air balloon event in Vermilion County, the Balloon Classic, which Steinbock participated in as well. “It’s just really neat, and I’ve made good friends there.”
In other festival locations, the local town doesn’t get as involved as the Danville community does for Balloons Over Vermilion, he said.
“It’s really neat to see that,” he added. Steinbock has been around hot air balloons since he was 7 years old. He’s had his pilot’s license since 1987. And his wife, Lisa, surprised him with his first balloon as a Christmas present around the time he got his license.
He could see the inflated hot air balloon in their neighborhood as he drove home that day and knew something was “up,” but he didn’t know what until he pulled in and saw the giant four-foot gift tag hanging from the balloon and a surprise party of friends and family gathered. And the rest is history and lots of hot air. “It’s the only day they’ve ever seen me quiet,” Steinbock said.