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Hot-air balloon festivals: Celebrate the sky

Courtesy Colorado Balloon Classic

“There’s something magical about ballooning. There’s just this awe.

People gravitate to hot-air balloons,” said Russ Mench, a spokesman for the Quick Chek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning. “It’s something you can’t see every day. To see 125 balloons floating in the sky is amazing. You don’t get tired of it.”

Joan Grishakot agrees. She and her husband, Walter, have been involved with the Adirondack Balloon Festival in Glens Falls, N.Y., for 37 years. “I can look up in the sky, and it still brings shivers down my spine,” she said. “It’s a gorgeous sight.”

Hot-air balloon festivals are a great way to experience the magic and spine-chilling thrills of multistory balloons decorated in bright kaleidoscopes of rainbow colors. There are mass ascensions that fill the sky with dozens of balloons at one time and various forms of competitions, such as hound balloons chasing a hare balloon and fly-ins with pilots trying to hit marks on the ground with sand bags or grabbing a ring off a pole for prizes.

Most festivals have dusk and evening glows, in which the balloons are inflated but tethered and lit by the light from their burner flames. “The balloons stand up like big Christmas trees, lighting up and twinkling,” said Patsy Buchwald, president of the Colorado Balloon Classic.

And the balloons are usually very accessible.

“Spectators are allowed to walk up to where the balloons are, and they get to talk to the pilots,” said Buchwald. “It’s a very intimate experience with a unique form of aviation.”

Shamaine Giannini has lived in Albuquerque, N.M., all her life and has seen most of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiestas. “Just watching the process is amazing,” she said. “I never get sick of it.”

There are numerous festivals around the country that offer groups an opportunity to experience these colorful spectacles and unique forms of aviation. Here’s a look at a few of them.

Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic
Decatur, Ala.
More than 55 hot-air balloons take off from Point Mallard Park, a 750-acre municipal park, during the Memorial Day weekend Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic, which will be held for the 34th time in 2011.

The festival is two days of competitive balloon races, tethered balloon rides, live entertainment, an antique car show, an evening “balloomination” and a fireworks show.

“There are arts and crafts and an antique tractor show,” said Tami Reist, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The admission is free.”

The Southland Flywheelers Tractor Show features tractor games, a tractor parade, a pedal tractor pull, a two-cylinder horsepower continental engine demonstration and a hands-on historical tool area.
(800) 232-5449

Battle Creek Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon Festival
Battle Creek, Mich.
During the mornings and evenings leading up to and on the Fourth of July, nearly 50 balloons fly in competitions as pilots try to hit three targets with sand bags at the Battle Creek Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon Festival at the city’s W.K. Kellogg Airport.

An interesting competition is the Chase Crew Pit Stop, where the balloonists inflate their balloons and then the crews compete to see who’s the fastest to take them down and pack them up.

“But it is not just a balloon event,” said Barb Haluszka, the festival’s executive director. “We have an air show, carnival entertainment, specialty food booths, novelty specialty booths and fireworks. There are all kinds of different activities.”

The air show, which features such wide-ranging military and civilian aircraft as Harrier jets and a jet-powered sailplane, runs from noon to 5 p.m. followed by a balloon launch, live entertainment and a late-evening balloon glow.
(269) 962-0592

Quick Chek New Jersey
Festival of Ballooning

Readington, N.J.
The New Jersey Festival of Ballooning draws nearly 175,000 spectators over three days as up to 125 balloons fill the skies during five mass ascensions over the Solberg Airport in late July.

“It is a relatively small rural airport, and during the course of the weekend, it is transformed into the third-largest city in New Jersey,” said Mench.

“We are known for bringing in unusual special-shape balloons. The last two years, we have had an eight-story-tall Darth Vader head. There also are twin bumble bees that are 110 feet tall, a pirate that is 100 feet, a five-story-tall American flag and an Energizer bunny that is bigger than the Statue of Liberty.”

The festival also includes arts-and-craft vendors, a large fireworks show Friday night, a balloon glow and big-name entertainers Saturday evening.

“From 6 in the morning to 10 at night, there are different things for different age groups,” said Mench. “People can make a day out of coming to the balloon festival.”

The festival is located halfway between Philadelphia and New York City, about an hour from each city. “For groups, it is easy to pair us with something else in the Northeast,” said Mench.
(800) HOT-AIR-9 (468-2479)

Colorado Balloon Classic
Colorado Springs, Colo.
One of the most popular and unusual aspects of the Colorado Balloon Classic is the “splash and dash.” “They launch from Memorial Park in downtown,” said Buchwald. “Prospect Lake is there, and if the wind direction is right, they can touch down gently on the water and then lift back off. You hear the cheers when they do the splash and dash.”

Changing weather patterns over the past few years have also created another unusual aspect to the Labor Day weekend classic. “Numerous balloons are able to maneuver back to the park, and you are often treated to seeing balloons come back and touch down near where they lifted off,” said Buchwald.

“We average 75 to 100 balloons that fly Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings, with two balloon glows on Saturday and Sunday evenings.”

Buchwald said the balloons do mass ascensions in two waves without competitions. “They just come and fly and have fun,” she said.

The balloons provide spectacular photo opportunities as they take off from the green, grassy park and its many memorials, with Pikes Peak as a backdrop.

“The photos taken here are breathtaking and award-winning,” said Buchwald.

The festival also has free concerts, skydiving teams and paraglider demonstrations.
(719) 471-4833

U.S. Bank Balloons, Tunes
and BBQ Festival

Bowling Green, Ky.
The four-day U.S. Bank Balloons, Tunes and BBQ Festival at Bowling Green’ airport features about three dozen balloons competing for $10,000 in prizes in hound-and-hare fly-outs and fly-ins, where pilots drop sand bags at marks on the ground.

“At the end of the weekend, the balloonists have had a fly-in and a fly-out on Saturday and a fly-in on Sunday,” said Craig Browning, a regional president for the sponsoring bank and the festival chairman. “They accumulate points for those three events.”

As its name indicates, the festival has more to offer than just the balloons.

“In addition to the beautiful balloons overhead, the festival includes great food, live music acts from around the region, the Bowling Green Idol competition, balloon glows and tether rides, children’s rides and more,” said Marissa Butler, public relations director for the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Bowling Green Idol competition on Friday evening features 10 solo artists who have been selected by a panel of judges from earlier auditions. The field is narrowed to five after their initial performances, and a winner named after a second round.

A top up-and-coming country music star performs at a Saturday evening concert following the hound-and-hare liftoff and the early evening balloon glows.

“We shut down one of the runways and build the festival on the runway,” said Browning. “The stage, food booths and barbecue are all on the tarmac, and the balloons are on the grass.”
(270) 745-7532

Adirondack Balloon Festival

Glens Falls, N.Y.
An added benefit to the Adirondack Balloon Festival is the area’s location, according to Grishakot. “There is beautiful scenery,” she said. “It is 15 minutes from Saratoga, Vermont is just a half-hour away, and Lake Placid only an hour and a half away. It is a beautiful drive up there.

“There are a million things to do during the day.”

Around 90 hot-air balloons participate in the annual September event, flying early in the morning and late in the afternoon. There are also tethered balloons and a breakfast in a hangar that has become a local tradition.

Albuquerque International
Balloon Fiesta

Albuquerque, N.M.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Oct. 2-10 has grown from modest beginnings in 1972, when 13 balloons launched from a shopping mall parking lot, into the largest hot-air balloon gathering in the nation by far.

“There are balloon events all over the world, with maybe 100 or so balloons,” said Giannini, group tour coordinator for the fiesta. “We have nearly 700. Just try to imagine wave after wave after wave of balloons taking off and filling the sky completely.”

In 2009, the fiesta attracted balloons from 38 states and 17 countries and more than 760,000 spectators.

With several mass ascensions scheduled over the nine days of the festival, attending the event can seem daunting at first to group leaders. However, Giannini said the fiesta has a special hospitality program for groups “that is a seamless way to go.”

“We have a package that includes parking, admission and a hospitality tent with light refreshments specifically for the group tour folks coming in,” she said. “Since it is a big open field, to have someplace to come and sit down and have shelter is really key.”

The balloons take off from a 78-acre launch field the size of 54 football fields in Balloon Fiesta Park.

“The mass ascensions on the weekend are very popular, but my favorite days are Thursday and Friday with the special shapes,” said Giannini. “They launch in the morning. Then the regular balloons inflate and have competitions; they fly in and do things like bag drops or key grabs off a pole.

“You get a double whammy. You have all those beautiful special shapes, and then the others fly in.”

The special-shape balloons, which include flying castles, cows, scarecrows, bees and bears, have balloon glows dubbed “glowdeos” each evening.

There are various types of musical entertainment during the fiesta and large, 40-minute-long fireworks shows after the five evening events.
(888) 422-7277