Celebrating 50 Years Aloft

Last Updated 3/6/2024In Made In Iredell

By Kristie Darling

While Firefly Balloons has just a handful of employees, these craftsmen and engineers construct and sell a product that, in 2022, celebrates its 50th year. Firefly balloons are shipped around the world. Among balloon enthusiasts and historians, Firefly is a world-renown, award-winning, industry pioneer, and, good for us…home-grown.

Humble Beginnings

As an FAA certified hot air balloon manufacturer, Firefly Balloons is governed and regulated just like Cessna, Boeing, and Space X. The company was started in 1972 by Tracy Barnes, an extraordinary inventor and visionary. He moved to Iredell County, near Love Valley, to establish his factory because of our moderate weather and farm-to-market secondary road system. He found creative, hardworking employees among the hippies who lived nearby. Needless to say, business was different in the 1970s.

Today, five employees hand-build balloons in a large industrial building on Meacham Road, in west Statesville, a far cry from its humble beginnings in two chicken houses. Firefly is one of only six balloons made in America. Production hit its heyday in the late 70s to early 80s, when up to 50 orders were filled by 40 or so workers monthly. The sales force grew to 186 dealers worldwide—most were customers, pilots who flew passengers for hire or ran corporate balloon marketing contracts for large corporations, like Oldsmobile, Burger King, Kellogg’s, even Rhyne Realty here in Iredell. In fact, each of these balloons has flown here…you might have photos of them from Carolina BalloonFest’s earliest years.

Monica South Gantt is production and repair manager and works with the FAA inspections district office. She and her husband, Keith, have worked together for 30 years, married for five. “We get calls from repair stations around the world; they need parts made, and they need them now,” she said. “We service a huge network of aircraft mechanics. Many pilots make their livelihood flying hot air balloons, so timely turn-around is important.”

Balloon Construction

What Tracy Barnes did to make Firefly successful was create a production line. “Before we got type certified, balloons were one-offs. Each specialist had a specific job. Parts were constructed by the guys before us…it was easy to mass produce custom balloons. Same with the envelope—pre-cut panels using a hot wire for accurate cuts was our technique…the table we use today is imprinted with decades of hot cutting marks.”

Balloon construction has resumed a one-customer-at-a-time schedule. You can design balloons with crayons, markers, or electronically. A commercial pilot might order the largest size, a Firefly 12B (280,000 CF, 16 passengers) while a private pilot or small ride company will do fine with an FF-90 CF up to FF-120 CF, that can carry up to four/six passengers. “We think you could fly a handful of our smallest 42,000 CF balloons inside the big one, but we haven’t tested that,” Keith said. “Start to finish, about three to four months, depending on who’s ahead of you.”

Firefly Today

A tour of Firefly tells the story. The company’s still-in-use industrial sewing machines and the 48-foot-long cutting table are vintage and impressive. Ever seen a sewing machine with a dozen big spools of thread? Wall after wall of memorabilia, posters, photographs, a rainbow of fabrics, equipment, and tools surround you. Throw in blood, sweat, tears, and a lot of balloon pins.

Even with all that history, quality has kept up. As an FAA certified aircraft, paperwork is a big deal. “We follow the same ISO 9001 Quality System as huge corporations…anyone who touches a part, initials it.” At Firefly, all components—fuel system, envelope, basket—are custom-built.

Staying Local

“Since the early days, we buy-local as much as possible—hardware from Mid-State Bolt in Statesville, plywood from Taylorsville. We buy red oak in North Wilkesboro and get our rope in Harmony. Our fabric is made in America; we import the basket’s rattan from Southeast Asia. We love being in North Carolina…Iredell County has been good to us.”

Keith Gantt started in 1980 as a basket fabricator and soon became basket shop supervisor. “I’m a craftsman by trade, so building baskets fits me.” He’s now general and quality control manager—the guy the FAA comes to see. Glen South, Monica’s son, has been building and repairing balloons for 15 years. Salesman Jack Ponticelli started in 2006, and Patrick Grogan’s been with Firefly for four years. Both Jack and Patrick can build or repair any balloon or part needed. Everyone is from North Carolina, including Duke, Firefly’s in-house balloon-inspector German shepherd.

Ready to Buy a Balloon?

Pilots who choose Firefly Balloons are kindred spirits. These unique, triangle shaped balloons are sold on every continent. Some are purchased by corporations, full-time commercial pilots, and some have day jobs, like teachers, students, engineers, car mechanics, hair stylists, Realtors, business owners, EMTs—women and men, young and retired. In and around Iredell County, close to 15 pilots take to the skies year-round. When folks ask about price, the easy answer is, it’s like buying a nice car, although you could spend much as a really, really nice car!

A Smithsonian Feature

One of Tracy’s earliest balloons was featured in a Smithsonian exhibit called Craft Multiples in 1975. The focus was hand-crafted, utilitarian items. He’d created his “free balloon envelope and carriage” with essentials of safety and comfort…simplicity and elegance, plus affordability. These same requirements inform every balloon produced today.

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