Look! Up in the sky!

Ohio Challenge Hot Air Balloon Festival returns to Middletown

By Tony Baker

Photo: An Earth-shaped World Balloon (the first hot air balloon to be digitally printed) and a ten-story Angry Bird are among the balloons on display; photo: Eric Haas

Imagine heading down Route 4 early one summer morning. You’ve just stopped at the drive-thru and are busily working your way through a fast food breakfast on your way to work, not expecting to see anything extraordinary. Suddenly, you round a curve and are startled by the sight of dozens of hot air balloons soaring through the skies over Middletown, lighting up the sky in a rainbow of bright primary colors.

“It’s like being shot out of a cannon,” says Patrick Venturella, director of Public Relations and Marketing for the Ohio Challenge Hot Air Balloon Festival. “The adrenaline. Running around, putting out small fires here and there. And then you get to see all that effort culminate in a successful event.”

Venturella has been working for the festival for two years, but the event dates back to the 1990s, when Middletown played host to a national hot air balloon competition. The first Ohio Challenge took place in 2002, a joint effort that continues to be supported by the City of Middletown, Middletown Chamber of Commerce, the Butler County Visitors’ Bureau and other local agencies. And it’s a family affair—Venturella’s mother worked for the event when he was in high school.

Every July, upwards of 20,000 people (and that’s a conservative estimate) converge on Middletown’s Smith Park to enjoy food, carnival rides, fireworks, live music, skydiving performances and of course, the balloons themselves. Volunteer pilots from all over the country fly into Smith Park early in the morning, offer tethered balloon rides to attendees throughout the day, and then light up once night falls, casting red, yellow, blue and orange-colored light from one end of the park to the other.

“At the end of the day it’s just a good time, and that’s what we like to tell people,” Venturella says. “And even more than that, I think it’s a good billboard for Middletown, and for what we can do when we pull together.”

And this year’s event will be bigger than ever. Musical guests include Pistol Holler, a country group based in Cincinnati; Jen Stamper, a singer/songwriter from Kentucky; and Alabama-based band Southern Comfort. The event will also feature a number of special-shaped balloons manned by professional pilots, including the ten-story Angry Bird (a big hit last year, apparently), the 68-foot Three Wise Monkeys (it’s what it sounds like), the ocean-themed Aquaria and the massive Earth-shaped World Balloon—the first hot air balloon to be digitally printed. The festivities will conclude with a fireworks display on Saturday evening. Also on the agenda are craft vendors, a car show, a pancake breakfast and a Wounded Warrior event honoring local Purple Heart recipients.

Putting on an event like this is no easy undertaking. Safety measures must be taken. FAA regulations must be met. And through it all, Venturella and his coworkers must maintain an open line of communication that allows them to work together and keep it all straight.

“There’s not one big challenge,” he says, “but more like fifty different small challenges to overcome. But it’s all completely worth it in the end. Everyone involved loves to give this event to the city of Middletown.”

And after all that work, it’s time to kick back and take a breather. At the end of each year’s Challenge, Venturella and his fellow workers and volunteers gather at the group’s large command RV to talk, break down the latest year’s developments, and start getting ready for next year.

“Everyone sits around drinking Long Island Iced Teas and talking about what we did right, and what we can improve on for next time,” he says. “Everyone’s dog-tired, but absolutely happy. And the Long Island Iced Tea doesn’t hurt.”

The Ohio Challenge Hot Air Balloon and Skydiving Festival takes place Friday-Sunday, July 10-12 at Smith Park, Middletown Regional Airport, 1800 Germantown Road/State Route 4. For more information, please visit ohiochallenge.com.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Tony Baker at TonyBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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