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. These larger-than-life balloons of our favorite characters have been a Thanksgiving tradition for more than 95 years, and while for most of those years the parade has gone off without a hitch, there have been a handful of disastrous Thankgiving Day Parade balloon mishaps in the past. 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
After the Thanksgiving Parade ended, an exhilarated 22-year old aviation student crashed her small plane into a 60-foot Tom-Cat balloon in Jamaica, Queens as part of a spontaneous stunt. 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. According to the book Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, upon seeing the balloon, Gipson was reported to have said, “I think I’ll have a piece of its neck.”
After making contact, the balloon wound itself around the left wing and the plane spiraled toward the ground, causing Gipson to turn off the ignition to avoid catching flames. Below her, hundreds of people looked up in horror as they watched the out-of-control plane fall. 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 to wrestle the plane into a landing 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 indented hat of a Popeye the Sailor balloon filled with water when it started raining at the 1957 Thanksgiving Day parade. The weight of the water caused Popeye to tip forward a bit and stray from his intended course. This deviation in the route took him closer to the crowd, which got a chilling surprise. Eventually, the water started to pour out of Popeye’s hat, directly onto an unlucky group of nearby spectators.
Popeye’s love interest Olive Oyl also suffered a parade day mishap in the 1980s. Untapped New York reader Robyn sent in the above photo of the incident taken by her father, Richard Roth Jr. You can see that Olive Oyl’s left hand is severed from the rest of her deflated arm. Her wrist caught on a lamp post or a tree at 72nd Street and Central Park West. According to Robyn, someone had to climb the lamp post to cut the balloon down!
8. Felix the Cat Catches Fire, 1927
The silent-film era cartoon character Felix the Cat met a rambunctious ending at the 1927 parade when he got tangled in telephone wires and caught on fire! Luckily, the flames were quickly extinguished before they could leap to any other nearby structures. The incident happened when the parade was over and the balloon was released into the air.
Letting the balloons float freely once the parade was over was common practice in the early days of the parade. Address labels were sewn into the balloons so people could mail them back to Macy’s for a $100 gift certificate. This practice was finally discontinued in 1932 after other various Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon mishaps occurred. Felix the Cat was actually the first larger-than-life balloon made for 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 mercifully suffered only minor injuries. Sonic, however, got a major time-out. Sonic the Hedgehog wouldn’t grace the parade again until 2011. That year, a new Sonic balloon was designed in a more modern fashion to celebrate Sonic’s 20th anniversary. The 20th-anniversary balloon was 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. The snag cause Kermit’s head to tear. Despite this Thanksgiving Day parade balloon mishap, the crowd remained enthusiastic and cheered the balloon on as the crew continued carrying the 1000-pound balloon toward Herald Square.
Unfortunately for Kermit, this wasn’t the first time his parade was ruined. Kermit encountered trees in 1985, but was able to make it to the end of the route before completely deflating. Shortly after the 191 incident, Kermit was temporarily retired. A tree-resistant Kermit debuted in 2002.
4. A Keith Haring-Based Balloon Hits NBC Broadcast Booth, 2008
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. The collision took out the camera and temporarily cut the threesome from air. Once the balloon was removed, the broadcast resumed as planned. The balloon featured Haring’s “Figure with a Heart.” It was created for the 2008 parage to honor what would have been Haring’s 50th birthday.
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. One of the victims was in 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 and could avoid future Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon mishaps. 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 much so that police officers went along the route and stabbed the Barney balloon for safety. This attack on Barney scared some nearby children.
The Pink Panther also gave into the winds and started to implode at 42nd street. An officer stepped in again to inflict the same fate as Barney. Now, when high winds are predicted the balloons are either grounded or flown much lower than they usually would be to avoid any potentially dangerous Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon mishaps.
1. Record Snowstorm Winds Puncture Snoopy and Bugs Bunny, 1989
Nature is an unpredictable force that can have a major effect on the Thanksgiving Day Parade. A little before the 1989 parade, intense winds from a snowstorm came into the area. The inclement weather 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.”
Characters including Might Mouse, Superman, Raggedy Ann, Spider-Man, Ronald McDonald and others have all fallen victim to a sharp lampost, protruding tree branch, or a strong gust of wind. All of the Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon mishaps however have thankfully led to regulations and safety procedures that help to limit the potential injuries and damage that the balloons can cause, so everyone can make it safely to the dinner table for some turkey.
Next, check out 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.
Get in touch with the author @sgeier97