- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 3, 2009

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. | New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has negotiated for the release of U.S. hostages in Iraq, Sudan and North Korea. Now he’s trying to work diplomatic magic for Coco the Clown, Darth Vader and Burnie the Little Devil.

Those are three of 13 special shaped hot air balloons that have been held for weeks in China in a dispute between a Chinese company and an American balloon event producer. Many are scheduled to fly at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which starts Saturday and runs through Oct. 11.

Special shaped balloons are created in the shape of animals, characters or objects and are given their own names, much like cartoon characters. Last year, they made up about 13 percent of all balloons at the Albuquerque fiesta.

But this year, the World’s Biggest Shopping Bag, the Snowman, Sunny Boy, Nelly-B the Pink Elephant, Woodrow Greenleaf, the Air Ball, the Golf Ball and the Orange may not make it.

“They’re all being Shanghaied in Beijing. They’re held hostage,” said pilot Frank Wechter of Albuquerque, owner of the shopping bag balloon. “So for Richardson to have the Chinese ambassador rattle their cage and put pressure is not a bad thing for us.”

The dispute followed a change in shipping agreements at an August ballooning event in Guyang, Inner Mongolia.

A New Jersey company, Promo 1, signed an agreement with Shanghai Oriental Exhibition Co., a Chinese government-owned marketing company, to fly the balloons over and back by airplane so they would return in time for the Albuquerque fiesta.

Howard Freeman, chief executive of Promo 1, said Chinese officials changed their minds and wanted to ship the balloons - which he calls “the Guyang 13” - back by sea.

“To me, it’s about ransom money. We had an absolute agreement with SOEC that they would fly (the balloons) over and fly them back. They changed their minds and wanted us to pay the difference,” Mr. Freeman said.

Mr. Freeman said he’s had to pay $30,000 in “extortion fees” and an additional $6,500 in late fees to get the balloons back to their American and European owners in time for Balloon Fiesta.

A call made to the Chinese Embassy on Friday was not answered.

On Sept. 21, Mr. Richardson spoke with Zhou Wenzhong, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, and followed up with a letter urging a resolution.

“I am working closely with the Chinese Embassy to get the balloons through customs as quickly as possible to ensure that they make it … in time to take to the skies during this year’s Balloon Fiesta,” Mr. Richardson said.

Mr. Wechter, who has flown at the Albuquerque event for the past 32 years, said pilots of the affected balloons are losing money because they’ve missed other engagements.

“This is my livelihood,” Mr. Wechter said.

Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Mr. Richardson, said the largest balloon shipment should arrive in New York on Sunday evening, assuming it leaves China on Friday.

Even if the balloons are returned in time, there’s no guarantee they’ll be ready to inflate and fly in Albuquerque.

Pilot Roger Baldwin of Bosque Farms, N.M., received his Blue Dragon balloon from China two weeks ago, but it was severely damaged. He fears other balloons also have been damaged.

“It looks like a forklift went through the envelope, tearing a hole, and the gondola is smashed. I could be out $20,000 to make these repairs,” Mr. Baldwin said. “These balloons are like our children.”

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