Fredericksburg resident and longtime balloon flying expert George Hahn was not surprised, but honored to earn the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Heritage Award.
The award is given each year to a person who has contributed to the Balloon Fiesta through their efforts.
Hahn, who has done more than his fair share for the event, was honored with the award during this year’s fiesta, held Oct. 5 to Oct. 13.
Due to his contributions during his more than 40-year ballooning career, he thought it was likely a matter of time before he earned this award. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t excited.
“The recognition by my peers for the efforts and what I have done over the past is very humbling,” Hahn said. “You don’t get into a sport or something for a reward. You do it because you enjoy it, and I always feel like I got more out of it than what I’ve put into it.”
Hahn got started in ballooning when he moved to Albuquerque in the 1970s. In 1975, an orthopedic surgeon by the name of Dr. Bob Benson took Hahn on his first balloon ride.
“I happened to be at a bar one night playing backgammon and the man I was playing with had a string tie and a bolo on it in the shape of a balloon, so I asked him if he was a balloonist and he said yes,” Hahn said. “I asked him how I could get a ride and he said to be at his place at six in the morning.”
After the flight, Hahn knew he wanted to in on this. In 1976, Hahn purchased his first balloon, named Snapdragon.
It didn’t take him long to get the hang of things, as he quickly became competitive pilot by 1978, according to the AIBF’s program.
Hahn became heavily involved in the AIBF and the ballooning community, and was known for his efforts to educate others about ballooning safety. Hahn served as the chief safety officer of the AIBF in 1984, assistant balloonmeister in 1985 and balloonmeister from 1986 to 1987.
Hahn also served on the Balloon Fiesta board for 22 years, working through the officer rotation.
Outside of the AIBF, Hahn owned a balloon sales and repair business called AERCO, which he operated for nearly 30 years.
While on the board, Hahn played a prominent role in ensuring the fiesta’s financial stability, after its existence had hung in the balance.
“The Balloon Fiesta was just barely hanging on for many, many years,” Hahn said. “With new bylaws, I instituted a couple of policies, including a very stringent fiscal policy.”
Hahn also instituted a finance committee so decisions would have to go through them before coming to the board and a reserves fund.
Ballooning is highly dependent on weather, Hahn said, so inclement weather always has the possibility of cancelling an event. Prior to adding the reserves fund, the Balloon Fiesta would risk losing a lot of income if weather cancelled one of the bigger days like the weekend Mass Ascensions.This would result in the fiesta losing much of its income.
Hahn also said a major financial contributor was bringing in was the event’s first title sponsor, Kodak, whosigned a decade-long contract in 1991.
“That gave us funds to operate with,” he said.
The event was once struggling financially. Now, it has a positive economic impact to the area.
“The economic impact to the city and state is around $100 million, so that’s pretty significant,” Hahn said.
Hahn has great memories from his career.
“One year, we took (Benihanas owner) Rocky Aoki’s balloons down to Saga, Japan and flew,” Hahn said. “I remember landing in a rice field that had been harvested. While we were packing everything up, a family comes up to us, offering a gift of seaweed, which is very popular to them.
“One of the things we do is we have pins made up of our balloons. We gave those to the two little girls and it was like we gave $1,000 to them,” he said.
The most moving memory he made was when he took an injured soldier into the air.
“There was a fellow that was head of the maintenance unit for the (Federal Aviation Administration) local office whose son was wounded in combat,” Hahn said. “He was in Air Force embedded with Marines in Iraq, and he was blinded” (by an improvised explosive device.
“He came to Fiesta and asked an individual if I could take him flying, and I told him absolutely,” Hahn said. “Even though he could not see and was horribly scarred, he was so positive. I cannot say enough about him.”
Move to Fredericksburg
George and his wife Alice decided to move to Fredericksburg about six years ago, after he sold his business.
They decided to move to Texas since Alice was from San Antonio, and found a ranch in Kimble County that they loved.
The Hahns’ ties to Fredericksburg run much deeper than Alice’s family.
“I’ve been coming through Fredericksburg my whole life,” George said. “My grandparents lived out in London, which is about 70 miles from here, but more than that is my relatives immigrated to Fredericksburg in 1850. So did Alice’s. Grona is her maiden name.”
Since coming to Fredericksburg, Hahn has gotten involved with the Masonic Lodge and is also a part of Systems Go, which is teaches stem projects to local high schools through a rocket program. He also helped out Fort Martin Scott and with local churches.