Dec 042009
Authors: Madeline Novey

While police will protect Manhatten’s people from crime during the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, knowledge of the laws of physics will protect them from the towering balloons as crews direct them down the city streets.

Matt Hannifin, owner of the local shop Science Toy Magic LLC in Old Town Square, started flying hot air balloons in 1974 and eventually earned a commercial license.

At one point, he contacted the parade studio thinking, “Because I work with balloons they might consider me for this type of work.”

“And I was right,” he says, laughing.

He has, since 1988, worked as a pilot for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloon crew. And he says he’s having fun, preparing himself for Thursday’s event.

“The more you know your science, the safer you are,” Hannifin says, returning to the store’s front table after digging through a box stacked full of articles about the parade dating back almost 20 years.

For the most part, he’s saved only those featuring the balloons he’d directed.

Standing near the entrance of his tiny store brimming with floating top devices, boomerangs and other gadgets, Hannifin took a small vacuum-like device and used its power to float a beach ball above shoulder height.

He says the Bernoulli Principle, Charles’ Law and Boyle’s Law — each having to do with pressure and temperature — are all taken into consideration when flying the balloons.

One year, the temperature climbed, unexpectedly, into the 60s, Hannifin says, which was nice for parade participants and onlookers alike. But the increase in temperature increased the pressure of the balloons — Charles’ Law — and threatened to tear the seams.

Onlookers secretly hope the balloon crews are lifted away while directing the balloons — a towering Pink Panther, Betty Boop atop a crescent moon and a tremendous Jimmy Neutron with an appropriately disproportionate head.

Though they have the capacity to fly away, Hannifin says because of the equilibrium of forces, the people pulling on dozens of attached ropes counteract all upward force from the balloons.

Hannifin says the hundreds of Macy’s volunteers gather on 77th and 81st Streets for the Wednesday night preparation of the balloons before their Thursday debut.

The streets are swept of any sharp objects, massive, heavy tarps are laid down, the un-inflated balloons are laid out, each balloon is filled with different proportions of air and helium until they look best, nets are thrown over the balloons and sand bags are laid to hold the nets in place over them until Thursday morning.

“It’s does not matter what happened the night before, we are inflating them,” Hannifin says. “Those balloons will be ready.”

When asked if he thinks about the science behind the Macy’s balloons when watching the parade, CSU physics instructor and Director of the Little Shop of Physics Brian Jones said, “Oh absolutely.”

“I think a big part about what I do is to try to show my students about how physics can get you to think about the world,” said Jones, who knows Hannifin and has played with his toys in Old Town. “And after you start thinking about it, you see it everywhere.”

The amount of Helium gas has always peaked Jones’ interest, he said. Hannifin says hundreds of canisters of helium sit on trucks at the inflation sites but could not estimate how much is used annually.

The process to capture helium is “quite remarkable,” Jones said, adding, “I can imagine how many canisters that can take.”

“Each atom in each of those balloons came from radioactive decay,” he said, explaining that pockets of uranium can be tapped, and when the uranium nucleus breaks into two pieces, one of those two is a helium atom.

Hannifin says he draws from his experience producing firework displays, professional laser shows for the New York Times Square New Year’s celebration and his work flying hydrogen balloons over the Swiss Alps to fly the Macy’s balloons each year.

“All of these things help with the parade,” he says, donning the floppy fishing hat with attached boomerang he wears traditionally every year.

News Managing Editor Madeline Novey can be reached at

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