The Ballooners

Your summer guide for floating through the Miami Valley

By Joyell Nevins
Photo: A balloonist prepares his craft at the Flag City BalloonFest, Aug. 12-14; photo: Bruce Baker

Long before airplanes were a reality, there were balloons big enough to fly someone above the earth. Even after technology makes getting coordinates or measuring the wind days in advance easier, there is still something primitive and humbling about being in a little basket, hanging underneath a great yard of fabric, floating in an even greater sky.

“I was 11 when I took my first ride—it was the most amazing thing I’d ever done,” Sean Askren of Askren Air Balloon Team says. “It’s an awe-inspiring experience.”

Want to see for yourself? There are plenty of opportunities this summer to see Askren’s and several other balloon teams at festivals and challenges around Ohio and the Midwest.

The Balloon Basics

Hot air balloons are literally that—a ball of fabric sewn together, inflated with air and then kept up in the sky by a flame that heats the air inside the balloon. The idea originated with the Montgolfier brothers, who lived in the late 1700s.

The brothers’ parents owned a paper factory in southern France. While working in the family business, the boys noticed that heated air, when collected inside a large lightweight paper or fabric bag, caused the bag to rise into the air.

Encyclopedia Britannica documents that the first public demonstration of this discovery was on June 4, 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers filled a balloon with heated air by burning straw and wool underneath it. The balloon rose into the about 3,000 feet and flew for about 10 minutes. Other experiments included flying balloons with a goat, rooster, duck, and then live passengers. The live passengers stayed in flight for about half an hour.

Now, balloon flights can easily go for one to two hours, Askren says. And technology has made pinpointing locations much easier. What has not changed in the last 300 years is that there is no steering mechanism—the only control the pilot has is up or down.

It’s the wind and weather that determine the direction the balloon will go. Askren says that’s one of the reasons balloonists and their crew are like part-time meteorologists. Balloons typically only fly in the early morning or early evening, when the wind is more stable, and almost never fly in winds higher than 10 mph.

Each balloonist has a “chase crew,” which, along with helping set up and break down the balloon, follows the flying contraption to pick up the pilot when he or she lands.

“Pilots are a close-knit group, and they make the crew feel like part of the family,” says Duane Wooten, a member of Askren’s chase crew.

Crewing is how many learn the craft of ballooning. Wooten joined the crew upon catching the balloon “bug,” as it’s often referred to, after his own ride in a hot air balloon.

“I love it. The peace, the quiet—it’s so relaxing,” he says, adding that it can be a bit of an adrenaline rush, too.

The average balloon size is about 90,000 cubic feet, eight to nine stories tall, and carries one to three passengers. However, they can be made as big as 300,000 cubic feet and hold a basket the size of a cargo van. An owner could purchase a basic balloon for about $60,000, but once the balloons start being made into shapes, the price goes closer to $100,000.

The fabric is nylon, and the baskets are made out of wicker and leather. Askren says they used to be designed with aluminum, but if you have a rough landing and bounce on the ground, the wicker is much softer on your body.

The baskets hold the passengers and propane tanks. There are no seats or handles, although there was a paraplegic pilot who had a special bench seat designed for him in the basket. To get into the basket, you step in a small opening and climb over the side.

The heat expended by the propane burners is 1,600 degrees and enough Btu’s to heat 300 homes for the whole winter, according to Askren (a Btu is a British thermal unit—the amount of work needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit, a.k.a. the amount of heat generated by one match). Be prepared—when that burner lights, the heat on your face and sound in your ears will definitely get
your attention!

The Ohio Challenge

To see Askren and several other amateur and professional balloonists compete, visit The Ohio Challenge in Middletown July 8–10. The festival brings between 60-70,000 people to Smith Park and the Middletown Regional Airport over the weekend.

There will be 28 regular round and shaped balloons this year—including a huge Elvis Presley balloon. The festival includes balloon rides, live music, skydiving displays, children’s carnival rides and a nighttime
fireworks extravaganza.

It is held in conjunction with the Warrior Weekend to Remember, a combination of activities sponsored by Wounded Warriors meant to “enrich the lives of active duty and veteran men and women injured in combat or training.” Up to 30 Wounded Warriors will be participating in special festival activities (see warriorwtr.com for more information).

One of the unique aspects about The Ohio Challenge is the flying area—balloons have a 360-degree radius of space in which to float without disruption from trees, buildings, etc. “It’s the perfect flying area,”
Askren says.

The Challenge also helps balloonists acquire points to qualify for the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships, sponsored by the Balloon Federation of America. With hot air balloons, the competition is less of a race and more of a set of tasks. There is a list of target coordinates, and each balloonist has to try and drop their particular bag (a 2-ounce beanbag with a nylon “tail”) as close to each 25-foot target as they can. It’s a harder feat than it sounds when you’re dropping those bags from 3,000 feet in the air.

The festival actually began because the federation held the national championships in Middletown from 1992–94. The local community enjoyed it so much, they decided they wanted to keep hosting balloon events. The Challenge now attracts pilots from across the nation.

For more information, please visit ohiochallenge.com or call 513.435.6361.

Coney Island Balloon Glow

If you want to be moved by a different view of the balloons, visit Coney Island in Cincinnati for the annual LaRosa’s Balloon Glow July 3. In a hot air balloon, when the propane feeds a direct liquid into the burner instead of a vapor, it doesn’t get as hot—but the flame is brighter. This creates what is known as a “glow.” At night, balloonists can’t fly because they have no way to see where they’re going, but they can glow. At the Coney Island event, all of the 15 to 20 balloons light up at a set time together.

“Kids love it—they love it,” emphasizes Coney Island representative
Mary Schumacher.

The annual event used to be called “Balloon Fest” and included the balloons going up into the air all together. Two problems: one, it was very weather sensitive (remember how much ballooning depends on the wind?), and two, once the balloons flew away, they were gone—no steering back to the park.

“With the glow, they don’t go away,” Schumacher says. “This time, they
stick around.”

The day will also include stiltwalkers and jugglers, and live classical and jazz music. The whole park stays open hours later than normal for people to enjoy the rides and swimming. The evening ends with an elaborate fireworks show over Lake Como.

For more information and to see a video of the LaRosa’s Balloon Glow, please visit coneyislandpark.com or call 513.232.8230.

Flag City BalloonFest

The Flag City BalloonFest, Aug. 12–14 in Findlay, includes both an official competitive event and a glow. The festival started 17 years ago when an architect in town had a son who was a balloonist. The son would get a few of his friends to fly together in Emory Adams Park.

The event began with just five to six balloons. It is now one of the largest balloon festivals in the Midwest, with 50 hot air balloons and almost 50,000 visitors over the course of the weekend. There is actually a waiting list of balloonists who want to attend.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” says vice president of the BalloonFest  and board member Bruce Baker.

“We have a very large park, so there’s a lot of people but still plenty of space.”

Along with balloon flights in the morning and evenings, the Fest includes more than 20 different food vendors, kid rides, car show, 5k run and a vintage base ball game. Friday night will end with fireworks, weather permitting, and a glow will happen with about 20 of the balloons on Friday and
Saturday night.

New this year is a country concert on Saturday night by actress and singer Jana Kramer. In 2015, her single “I Got the Boy” sold more than 500,000 copies and made the Top 10 on both the Billboard and Mediabase country singles’ charts. Just recently, Kramer was nominated for American Country Music’s Female Artist of the Year and had her first baby boy—in the same week.

The festival keeps going Sunday morning with a sunrise service and free pancake breakfast, hosted by several local churches. Actually, the whole event is free—even parking, thanks to sponsors like First Federal Bank, which has been with the festival for many years.

The BalloonFest takes almost 200 volunteers to put on, and through rides and other fundraisers, still generates $35-40,000 to benefit charities such as United Way and CASA/GAL of Hancock County (Court Appointed Special Advocates for children). “It’s a great time for people to get together and spend time with their family and friends,” Baker says.

For more information, please visit flagcityballoonfest.com or like “Flag City Balloonfest” on Facebook.

Whatever festival or event you attend, be prepared to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of these balloons. And if you end up in the air, you may never want to come down.

“It’s addicting,” Askren says. “The peacefulness, the quiet, the beauty of it…sometimes my wife will call me after a solo flight and ask, ‘You in a bad mood?’ I answer, ‘No, not anymore.’”

Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com.

Cover Illustration by David Owens ArtByDavidOwens.com

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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