Give Thanks For Helium

Felix the Cat was the first balloon made for the Thanksgiving Day Parade, unveiled in 1927 alongside the Dragon, the Elephant and the Toy Soldier balloons.

Believe it or not, Macy’s is the world’s second largest consumer of helium behind the U.S. government. Since 1928, helium has been a vital part of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, keeping the parade’s iconic balloons afloat. In a typical year, the parade uses between 300,000 and 400,000 cubic feet of helium.

Macy’s introduced its first balloons in 1927, when Macy’s Christmas windows creator Tony Sarg lent his design eye to creating a series of “upside-down marionettes” inflated with air and held up on sticks. The next year, Sarg’s balloons were filled with helium, and a new tradition was born. In the early years of the parade, the helium balloons were released into the air at the event’s conclusion, and a reward was offered for the balloons’ return. However, upon being released in 1928, the balloons popped as the helium expanded at high altitudes. Macy’s solved the problem with a mixture of helium and air that it still uses today.

Paul Frank’s Julius is one of five new balloons to be introduced at the 2011 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Julius will contain 14,000 cubic feet of helium.

Over the parade’s history, helium supplies have only been an issue once, in 1958, when supply concerns forced Macy’s to ground its balloons. The balloons were filled with air and traveled the parade routes suspended from cranes. Since 1994, Linde has provided a steady source of helium for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Every year, four high-pressure tube trailers travel from the helium production facility in Otis, KS, to New York City. The balloons are inflated on the day before the parade using a gas filling apparatus Linde has customized for the parade. On Thanksgiving morning, balloons are topped off before making their way to 34th St.

Since 2007, Linde has been working with Macy’s to recover helium from the balloons at the conclusion of the parade. The helium recovery efforts received some assistance from a group of students at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. Working with Stevens Chemical Engineering Professor Dr. Ronald Besser, four students devised hardware to withdraw the helium from the balloons so that it could be compressed and loaded into a tanker truck for reuse. The devices used to extract the helium have been described as wands with bulbous tips to keep the fabric of the balloons from tearing and bunching.

But before any helium can be recovered, Macy’s “balloonatics” must build, test and fill the balloons with gas. In the video below, balloon techs explain the science behind determining how much helium is required to keep a flying monkey aloft, how to keep the balloons looking supple as helium escapes and how multiple bladders are the key to a successful parade.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association