The Romance of Ballooning
Meet Charles Page + Kristie Darling - Big Oh! Balloons
By Kristie Darling
Romance and ballooning go hand-in-hand. When the love of ballooning and the love of a good woman came together, Charles Page didn’t have a chance. “I can’t imagine a more exciting adventure than this,” he smiled. “I get to fly balloons and see the world from the best perch ever and play with Kristie every day. Works for me.”
Charles got into balloons through an invitation from a dear friend of his. “I hear they got hot air balloons up in Iredell County…let’s go.” During his first year at The National Balloon Rally, when Karen Buckle and Charles checked it all out, a seed was planted that has grown into Charles’ exceptional career as pilot-in-command at Big oh! Balloons, Statesville’s longest-running ride business. “That first year, I remember getting there in the dark, it was really cold, my feet were wet, and I had no idea what to expect,” Charles remembers. “Then, just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, several dozen pilots and crew rolled out of their tents, dragged out their equipment, and inflated those glorious orbs. We watched them launch into the morning haze, and I knew right then…this was for me!” Charles met Tracy Barnes that year. He was the parking guy out in the field, and it wasn’t until Charles picked up a sales brochure in the balloon factory/chicken house, that he realized Tracy was the inventor of these balloons!
Eventful First Flight
After Kristie and Charles went to watch the balloons the next year, it was time for them to go flying. “We got in touch with local pilot Jim Thompson and Kristie, Karen, and I took our maiden flight,” Charles said. “Jim is the most extraordinary pilot I’ve ever flown with. He could do amazing things with a balloon. It was awesome, little bit foggy, and it was the most expensive flight ever because, upon landing, we told Jim we were going to buy his balloon.” Charles signed up for instruction with Jim that morning, and the rest is history! “We chose ‘Big oh! Balloons,’ a bit of a double entendre, immediately as our company name, because we knew we needed to run this as a business to afford doing it,” Kristie said. “2021 was our fortieth ballooning anniversary, and the best part is, we keep making memories with all our passengers with every flight we take.”
Challenges and Triumphs
Decision-making is the biggest challenge for many pilots, and Charles is no different. “Our focus is always on safety,” he explained, “so assessing all the variables of weather, equipment, launch and landing sites, plus just making sure I’m up to the task, is a big deal.” Charles and Kristie have flown in many different weather conditions and locales throughout the years. “My flight from Biltmore House in 1983 is the perfect example of how making the decision to land while I still had control came into play. Launching from the Biltmore lawn is spectacular, but it is surrounded by about ten miles of forest. We flew at dawn to take advantage of forecasted increasing speed to get us to clear terrain…well, that didn’t happen. I decided to land in the Biltmore Forest, totally in the trees, after the wind just stopped. There wasn’t even a whisp of breeze up to 6,000 feet—I checked.” Turns out, all ended well, and flying in the mountains remains a highlight and a possible next adventure for Charles and Kristie.
These two balloonists have always been up for adventure. Exciting personal bests includes a high-altitude, 24,000’ flight from Greensboro to Raleigh; several history-making balloon cluster flights over Charlotte with two, three, and four balloons tied together; and Charles’ 1999 to 2000 New Years’ Eve flight. “I launched solo at midnight, end of the 20th century, pitch dark, with 100 gallons of fuel strapped to the basket,” his story goes, “and after a dark night and 105 miles, I landed at Jack’s Mountain, Virginia at 6:41 a.m. New Year’s Day, still in the dark, hour before sunrise. My adrenaline was off the chart the whole time. Pretty sure it’s the first time—and the last time—I’ll get to do that!”
The Adventure Continues
Charles and Kristie got married in 1986—they flew off after their wedding, along with eight balloonist friends, to a cheering crowd from their home in Cool Spring. You can see balloon east of Statesville thanks to Big oh! Balloons’ set up at the Greater Cool Spring International Balloonport and Space Museum. In 1988, Charles trained Kristie to fly. She’s a private pilot who has taken on the role of crew chief, blog chief, spontaneity chief, and champagne chief.
The original Big oh! that they bought in 1981 was recently re-created at Firefly Balloons. “We’ve come full circle with that first balloon. The factory had the original pattern, and this new one is gorgeous,” Kristie said. “Of course, I think it’s the prettiest ever.”
Charles and Kristie love experiencing balloon flight through their passengers’ eyes…and, with more adventure in their hearts, they’re going to keep doing that as long as it’s fun.
Kristie is also the Community Columnist for Discover Statesville. She goes out into the community to meets with our inspiring neighbors, and writes their stories to be shared here, on Discover Statesville.