P.O. Box 28
Helen, GA 30545 U.S.A.
BALLOONS, INC. &
by Glen Moyer for Balloon Life, January 1997
Tarp Head and Crew
It was 1969 and the town of Helen, Georgia was at a cross roads. Like so many small towns across America all signs of growth had long since packed their bags and moved on. The question before a citizen's committee was how to revitalize their town to bring in new businesses, new people and new revenue to Helen.
The recommendation that won the day called for transforming Helen, Georgia, tucked away in the mountains of Georgia, into a small Bavarian village like those found on so many picture postcards sent home from Europe. Townspeople used their own funds to build new facades replicating the "red & white" architecture so predominant in the Bavarian Alps and over time created a unique new tourist attraction identity for their hometown of Helen.
One leading citizen behind the transformation was a man named Pete Hodgkinson. While looking at a book on Bavarian architecture in 1973, he noticed a picture of a balloon flying over the Alps and decided that if balloons could fly over the Bavarian Alps they could just as easily transverse the Georgian "Alps". Much telephone research led to Don Piccard who directed Hodgkinson, partner Lanier Chambers and friend Tarp Head to a Piccard dealer in North Carolina. A short drive later and Helen, Georgia had its own balloon, and soon would have its first balloon pilot.
"We never really got any formal training," recalls Tarp Head, President and CEO of Head Balloons, Inc. "We just went out and learned to inflate the thing, and of course, we damaged it, as that will happen... so I taught myself to sew in order to repair the balloon."
"We used the balloon as a tourist attraction and I tethered it for years, back when you didn't need a license to tether balloons. We'd get a crowd up, tether the balloon for a while then Pete or Lanier would get in and fly away while I got in the car and chased them."
Hodgkinson, Chambers, Head and several other Helen residents got a student license. Eventually the FAA landed on Helen's star attraction, the balloon, and it was Head who was elected to get the first real pilot’s license.
"That was in 1973," says Head, "and then I met and began running around with Mike Adams down in Atlanta where I was attending Georgia Tech."
The two met in 1974, when Helen hosted the first of its now annual Helen-to-the-Atlantic balloon races.
The pair's friendship soon extended into a business venture as Head joined Mike Adams at Adams’ Balloon Loft. Head would remain a partner in the business until 1980 when the pair split and Adams bought out Head's interest in the company.
His next step was the one so many balloonists, even today, yearn for. Head became a road warrior pilot, flying commercially for Coca-Cola and a variety of other clients. After three years on the road, he tired of the hotel and suitcase lifestyle.
One of the reasons Head had split from Adams was that he had some new ideas about how to build and design balloon systems. Searching for something new to do, Head formed HEAD Balloons, Inc. and filed for FAA certification in 1983. HEAD Balloons, Inc. received their first FAA Type Certificate in 1984.
More than a decade later Head Balloons, Inc. has 6 models type certified and is the most successful of the small balloon builders in the world. In some respects they cannot, and do not try to compete against the likes of Aerostar, Cameron or the Balloon Works. Head Balloons, Inc. is nevertheless rapidly expanding worldwide with certification won and representatives now in Germany, Argentina, Slovenia, the United Kingdom , China and Peru.
Head Balloons is also unique in the sport as they were the first to gain FAA approval, through Supplemental Type Certificates, to mix and match major components (envelopes over baskets and burners of various manufacturers) to create a new aircraft.
"That move put us out in the marketplace much sooner than if we had stuck to selling full systems," Head explains, "because it made it much more attractive to people to buy one of our envelopes and thus get introduced to our equipment. Besides, why shouldn’t you be able to buy just an envelope if you have a perfectly good basket? And, you shouldn’t be limited to only buying it from whoever made your basket. There's no question that the replacement envelope market we began allowed us to grow much quicker than we would have otherwise."
And just who does Head Balloons see as its typical customer? "I think when we sell a balloon," says Head. "it is to those people who really get out and shop the market to see and compare exactly what they're getting for their dollar."
"We run a small shop, it's not very big. It's paid for. We don't have a huge building and everything we do here is custom. We don't stockpile a lot of inventory, so our overhead is very low. As a result, we can keep our prices reasonable. We don't have a huge production line to shut down when a customer comes in and wants something done a little different. I think it's our ability to personally serve the customer who wants a custom product or maybe a "one-off" design or accessory that has made us successful."
"I've always said the reason I enjoy ballooning so much is because it has afforded me the opportunity to travel and meet so many new people. With all the expansion we have going on it's keeping me on the road as much as I need to be and sending me to places I might never have dreamed of seeing. That's going to keep me busy here for the next several years."
Balloon Life, Jan 1997