Astronaut Snoopy might not be cleared for take off. The usually buoyant SpongeBob SquarePants may wind up deflated and depressed. Olaf, the garrulous snowman from “Frozen,” could find himself melting into a heaping puddle on the pavement.
That’s because though New York City plays Thanksgiving host to the annual Macy’s parade, it has a strict and specific set of balloon-flight regulations that have been in place since 1997, when a windswept inflatable Cat in the Hat caused destruction that left one woman in a coma for nearly a month.
So as omnipresent as the mammoth character balloons are, so, too, are weather forecasters, police officers and others trying to guess which way the wind will blow.
Macy’s has a licensed meteorologist — armed with a laptop and an open line to the National Weather Service — on hand every year to observe weather conditions, monitor gusts and help make decisions about the floating characters in the procession.
The Police Department assigns trained officers to balloons and has seven wind-monitoring devices, called anemometers, to measure gusts along the route and guide the parade accordingly.
“We are always attuned to weather conditions for Parade Day,” Orlando Veras, a Macy’s spokesman, said. “We monitor the weather on a daily basis, but at this time, it is too early to make any determinations.”
This year, with high winds in the forecast, parade enthusiasts are particularly anxious that the most famous balloons in America might get grounded.
Maneuvering a massive helium-filled balloon down the two-mile parade route can be a challenge even in the best of conditions. The biggest of the balloons measures between 50 and 60 feet tall and can be just as long.
The giant balloons also weigh hundreds of pounds and require dozens of trained handlers to guide them through streets lined with gawking spectators and hulking buildings.
To help avoid crashes and other catastrophes each year, every floating behemoth is assigned a supervisor, according to Chief Rodney Harrison, the Police Department’s chief of patrol. He added that each balloon had its own “predetermined flight risk” based on its size and weight.
As the inflated characters hover their way downtown, the supervisors are fed information from the anemometers. They then instruct handlers to reel balloons lower or higher based on changing wind conditions, Chief Harrison said.
According to city regulations, the giant balloons cannot fly at all if there are sustained winds above 23 miles per hour or if gusts exceed 34 m.p.h. Though guidelines for balloon handling had long in been place, the rules became more severe after the accident in 1997.
On that Thanksgiving, balloon handlers were grappling with winds that reached speeds in excess of 40 m.p.h., when a six-story Cat in the Hat balloon was pushed by the gusts into a lamppost.
One part of the lamppost broke off and fell onto parade spectators, injuring four people, including a 33-year-old woman who suffered a serious head injury and spent more than three weeks in a coma.
While balloon accidents had caused some chaos in the past — even as early as 1931, when a Felix the Cat balloon that was released from the parade later drifted into telephone wires and caught fire — the severity of the 1997 incident caused then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to open a city investigation that led to the current rules.
The regulations have not prevented further collisions. In 2005, a giant M&M balloon smacked into a light pole in Times Square and pulled off a fixture that crashed to the ground and injured two spectators.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the National Weather Service was predicting that Thanksgiving Day would bring winds of up to 25 m.p.h, with gusts nearing 40 m.p.h. throughout the New York region.
Matthew Wunsch, a meteorologist at the Weather Service, warned that gusts in the densely built parts of Manhattan, where tall buildings create a wind tunnel, could rise even higher.
“It’s going to be windy regardless,” Mr. Wunsch said. “But the buildings make it a lot more variable.”
If the giant balloons are grounded, Mr. Veras said, it would be only the second time in the history of the Macy’s parade that they were forbidden to take flight. The first was in 1971, when a cold, wet and windy Thanksgiving kept the balloons on the ground. (There were also no balloons between 1942 and 1944, when the parade was suspended because rubber and helium were needed for World War II.)
The character balloons have been a staple of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since 1927. This year’s, Macy’s is hoping to feature new versions of two parade fixtures, Snoopy and SpongeBob, and the return of Smokey Bear for the first time since 1993.
Even if winds are high, Macy’s still plans to bring out 40 smaller inflatable figures. The themed floats will still sail down the street and Broadway performers, musicians and marching bands from across the country will still serenade the assembled crowds.
The final decision on whether the parade’s 16 giant balloons get pulled from the lineup this year won’t be made until Thursday morning, officials said.
“It’s going to be a game-day decision,” Chief Harrison said.
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