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Pumping up the color at O.C. Great Park

Irvine's giant helium balloon ride -- the first piece of a massive urban park project -- gets a new UV-protected bright-orange envelope to replace faded fabric.

December 07, 2009|By Tony Barboza
  • Balloon pilot Frank Loughridge, center, helps move the inflated envelope into position to attach the gondola that will carry passengers 400 feet into the air. The $550,000 replacement is expected to resist fading for five years.
Balloon pilot Frank Loughridge, center, helps move the inflated envelope… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

The Orange County Great Park's main attraction -- a giant helium balloon ride -- has seen more colorful days.

Two years out in the sun on an old airfield in Irvine has faded the painted surface of the giant balloon from a vibrant orange to a pale peach.

So the vessel is being outfitted with a bright-new envelope shipped in from France, which was inflated last week so it can once again carry visitors in a gondola 400 feet into the air.

It will take a crew of 30 workers five days to replace the balloon and pump it full of helium, officials say.

This time around, the city is using a dye-impregnated fabric with UV-protected pigment, which is expected to retain its radiant orange hue for at least five years.

Crews will also install lights inside the balloon to make it visible from miles away during night flights above the old El Toro Marine base.

More than 100,000 people have floated skyward on the tethered ballon since it opened in the summer of 2007, built for $5 million as the first piece of the massive, 1,347-acre public park planned for the old military airfield.

"It's been an extraordinarily successful thing; it's become an icon," the park's operations manager, Rod Cooper, said of the balloon. "So we're very comfortable moving forward with this as a symbol for the Great Park and what's happening here."

In that spirit, the city is paying the French firm Aerophile $550,000 for the "procurement, fabrication and setup" of the new envelope, a contract that was awarded without competitive bids, according to the city's adopted budget. The city also spends $500,000 a year for a staff of balloon pilots.

The balloon hasn't always risen above controversy.

Last year it was grounded for more than four months while the Federal Aviation Administration and a city-paid expert investigated a former pilot's allegations that the balloon had been operated in unsafe conditions.

Neither probe substantiated the claims, but the FAA required Irvine to file for a new permit and correct recordkeeping deficiencies.

And the orange orb is often invoked by the park project's critics as a symbol of misplaced priorities. City leaders in recent years have spent $104 million planning and designing the park, of which the balloon and its surrounding "preview park" are only a small element. There are still no sports fields and few public amenities.

But the city is making strides; last month it green-lighted a $65-million construction project to surround the ride with park space over the next five years. The sun-baked balloon may soon have some company, including thousands of shade trees, dozens of acres of grass and several soccer fields.

The ride is usually closed during windy or stormy weather. The Great Park recommends checking with the visitors center at (866) 829-3829 or ocgp.org/balloon to make sure the balloon is in flight.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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