Venerable Balloon Manufacturer To Stop Production

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Many piston pilots have likely never heard Aerostar mentioned in relation to anything but an airplane, but to the ballooning community, the Sioux Falls, S.D., company is kind of like Cessna, Piper and Beechcraft all rolled into one -- and the company just announced last week that after Jan. 31, 2007, it won't be in the hot-air balloon business anymore. Aerostar, which started as Raven Industries back in the 1960s, virtually invented the system that gave birth to the modern sport of hot-air ballooning. Company President Mark West said the decision was an economic one. "The entire general aviation industry took a marked decline after 9/11 and the hot-air balloon industry has never recovered," he said in a news release on Tuesday. "This coupled with significant increases in liability insurance costs has made for a business model that is no longer feasible. Unfortunately we cannot afford to stay in a business which is not profitable, even though it is the product line that founded Aerostar."

As Raven Industries grew and its product line expanded, Aerostar was created in 1986, as the balloon division of the company. In recent years, Aerostar has taken on other projects -- manufacturing survival suits for pilots, high-altitude research balloons, parachutes, the huge inflatables used in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and more. Hot-air balloon sales are now only about 50 a year, amounting to less than 4 percent of Aerostar's overall sales. In the 1970s, the company built as many as 300 a year. Besides security restrictions, high costs and insurance issues, pilots have found it increasingly difficult to find open space available to launch and land. Aerostar will continue to support the safety and maintenance of existing Aerostar and Raven aircraft in service, the news release said, and will continue to sell repair parts for those aircraft. Balloon pilot Noah Forden, of Rhode Island, an engineer who once worked for Aerostar, sums it up: "It's very sad to witness the loss of Aerostar as a manufacturer, because its balloons represent the 'direct lineage' from the original designs. Aerostar / Raven has always produced high-quality, highly engineered balloons, so this is a significant loss." Balloons won't vanish from the skies after next January, though -- Cameron Balloons, Firefly Balloons and a half-dozen other manufacturers remain in business.