Electric cooperative members recognize the iconic Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives (TSE) logo as a familiar national brand, but hot-air balloon enthusiasts know it as a symbol of their sport.
“I first flew the Touchstone Energy name at the National Hot Air Balloon Championship in Rantoul, Ill.,” said Cheri White, Cooperative Balloon Associates general manager and chief pilot of the Touchstone Energy hot-air balloon program.
That was 20 years ago, just hours after representatives of some Illinois co-ops asked her to carry their banner aloft to help publicize the TSE brand, then in its infancy. The co-ops were sponsors of the event but did not have a relationship with any balloonists at the time.
“I won the women’s division, and I finished 10th overall in the nationals,” White recalled. “We received a lot of media attention on television and in the papers. The co-ops supporting us saw incredible potential to engage people with the balloon.”
Eight Illinois distribution co-ops and two generation and transmission providers formed Cooperative Balloon Associates.
With a growing fleet and five main pilots, the balloons have been featured nationwide at co-op meetings, state and county fairs, agricultural exhibitions, community festivals and balloon competitions.
“In 20 years, we have put approximately 931,625 miles on the ground in our vans and 1,940 hours in the air in our balloons,” said White. The balloon program and Touchstone Energy have also returned more than $320,000 in charitable donations to co-op-served communities since 1999.
It’s not uncommon for all five active balloons to be airborne at different events in one day during busy periods.
If you have never seen the balloon, or wish to view it again, you have two opportunities. One of the balloons will be at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur from Aug. 27-29, and again at the Touchstone Energy Balloonfest at Lake Shelbyville Oct. 11-13.