Photo Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many are eagerly anticipating what kinds of diverse floats and balloons the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will feature. While these larger-than-life balloons of our favorite characters have been a Thanksgiving tradition for 89 years, there have been quite a few shocking, incidents that occurred at past parades. While we’re not expecting anything to happen this week, it was a fun project to research vintage photographs and learn about various safety measures that resulted from the accidents.
From plane crashes to deflations, read about these crazy mishaps (and hope that none happen this year).
10. A Plane Crashes Into a Tom-Cat Balloon, 1932
The Tom Cat Balloon from the 1932 Thanksgiving parade. Image via Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The student, Annette Gipson from Brooklyn, was flying the plane with her teacher at 5,000 feet when she noticed the balloon in her path and decided to fly right into it. In the book Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, upon seeing the balloon she was reported to have said, “I think I’ll have a piece of its neck.”
After making contact, the balloon wounded around the left wing and the plane spiraled towards the ground, causing Gipson to turn off the ignition to avoid catching flames. Below her, hundreds of people looked up and watched the out-of-control plane fall in horror. At one point Gipson almost fell out of the plane when the cabin door flew open, but her foot got caught and she was able to heave herself back in.
Fortunately, her instructor switched seats with Gipson in time and managed to land the plane where it was supposed to at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. An investigation by the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce found that Gipson and her instructor violated federal rules forbidding stunting over densely populated areas.
Despite this mishap, Gipson eventually became an accomplished “aviatrix” who made big headlines in the newspapers.
9. Popeye the Sailor’s Water-Filled Hat Splashes Onlookers, 1957
The Popeye balloon in 1957. Image via Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The indented hat of a Popeye the Sailor balloon filled with water when it started raining at the 1957 Thanksgiving Day parade. This caused Popeye to tip forward a bit and stray from its course, dumping freezing rainwater onto an unlucky group of nearby spectators.
8. Felix the Cat Catches Fire, 1927
Photo Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.
The silent-film era cartoon character, Felix the Cat, met a rambunctious ending at the 1927 parade when he got tangled in telephone wires along his path. This caused him to catch fire, but the flames were fortunately soon extinguished.
Felix the Cat was actually the first larger-than-life balloon made for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, so it’s not too surprising that things didn’t go too swimmingly at first.
7. Sonic the Hedgehog Crash Injures Two People, 1993
The Thanksgiving Day Parade’s first video game-based character balloon also had an unsuccessful start. En route, high winds caused him to first crash into a Columbus Circle lamppost and then into an off-duty police officer and young girl. The pair suffered only minor injuries and the balloon itself was almost completely damaged.
In 2011, a new Sonic balloon was designed in a more modern fashion to celebrate Sonic’s 20th anniversary, and retired after 2014.
6. M&M Balloon Tear Leads to Injurious Debris Fall, 2005
Here’s another Thanksgiving Day parade balloon whose destruction was caused by high winds: a 515-pound M&M balloon in 2005. While traveling through Times Square, the balloon tipped towards an office building and caught onto a street light on 43rd street, causing debris to fall and strike two sisters.
Concerns were raised earlier in the parade, when some witnesses noticed other balloons swaying even before the M&M one came along. This prompted a city investigation to adjust parade balloon safety rules that were already in place.
Both sisters were pretty seriously hurt; one needed nine stitches at the back of her head. Their compensation? A lifetime supply of M&Ms.
5. Kermit the Frog’s Head Tears, 1991
Many were sad to see this much-loved character catch onto some high branches during the parade at Central Park West, causing his head to tear. However, the crowd remained enthusiastic and cheered the balloon on as crew continued carrying the 1000-pound balloon it towards Herald Square. The above video shows the incident.
4. A Keith Haring-Based Balloon Hits NBC Broadcast Booth, 2008
The Keith Haring-based balloon in 1997. Photo Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.
TV anchors Al Roker, Meredith Viera, and Matt Lauer were taken aback when a balloon inspired by artist Keith Haring crashed into their NBC broadcast booth in 2008, taking out the camera and temporarily cut the threesome off air. Once the balloon was removed, things resumed to normal.
3. Cat in the Hat Crash Leads to Size Rules, 1997
As carefully detailed by the New York Times, 39-mph winds caused a six-story Cat in the Hat balloon to crash into a lamppost at 72nd street and Central Park West at the 1997 parade. The incident caused debris to fall, injuring four people and put one of them into a 24-day coma.
After the parade, Macy’s promised to increase training for its balloon handlers and paid for the replacement of dozens of lampposts so that they’d be less likely to be snagged by future balloon ropes. In addition, a government panel recommended certain restrictions on the size and functioning of parade balloons, as well as more regulation of the parade by the city itself.
The spectator who suffered brain damage sued the city for $395 million and settled for an “undisclosed sum” four years later.
2. Police Deflate Barney and Pink Panther Balloons Mid-Parade, 1997
Cat in the Hat wasn’t the only balloon that had trouble during the 1997 parade. High wind speeds caused a Barney balloon to start dangerously swaying, so that police officers went along the route and stabbed the Barney balloon for safety, scaring nearby children. The Pink Panther also gave into the winds and started imploding at 42nd street, so an officer stabbed it as well. Above is a video of what happened to the Barney balloon.
1. Record Snowstorm Winds Puncture Snoopy and Bugs Bunny, 1989
Snoopy in 1968. Photograph Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.
Once again, inclement weather was responsible for this incident. A little before the 1989 parade, intense winds from a snowstorm caused Snoopy’s nose to puncture and Bugs Bunny’s side to tear. The Daily News reported that this was the first Thanksgiving snowstorm in 51 years, and the parade itself had a “light to medium turnout.”
Next, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, read the Top 10 Secrets of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and get a look behind the scenes at the balloon inflation the day before Thanksgiving.
Also check out NYC Vintage Photos: The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Through the Years, Photos of the Balloon Blowing for 2014 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and What Does Grand Central Have in Common with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? Get in touch with the author @sgeier97