National Balloon Classic
Through Aug. 6 -- Memorial Balloon Field, $10-$12
In 1970, after seven years of moving from state to state, the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship was held in Indianola, Iowa for the first time. Indianola’s wide open spaces made it desirable for ballooning, and the championship would return to town every year for the next 18 years.
In 1989, the tournament went back to its peripatetic way, heading first to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and then onto different cities across America.
Not ready to give up the fanfare of ballooning competitions, Indianola began the National Balloon Classic the same year. Now, over 50 years later, balloon pilots from across the country still flock to Indianola in early August to compete.
Somehow, despite living in central Iowa for most of my life, I’d never made the trip to Indianola for the competition. Until this year. On Friday, July 29, opening night of the 2022 classic, I finally made the pilgrimage. Here’s how it went.
After buying my ticket and entering Memorial Balloon Field, I was greeted with a number of options. I could lay a blanket on the grass or set up a lawn chair and listen to Fahrenheit, a Des Moines cover band, play the smooth sounds of Bruno Mars on the Trubank stage. I could veer to the left and hang out in Kid’s Land. Or I could pick a food vendor and start my state fair pregaming with a corndog.
Instead of any of these, I chose to head down to the balloon launch area, where pilots and their teams were hard at work inflating their balloons for the Friday Night Kick-Off Flight.
Several families chose this route. Kids were hanging off of the short metal gates separating attendees from the launch area. People with cameras were watching eagerly as the huge nylon beasts slowly came to life amidst the whooshing of hot air. It didn’t take me long to get sucked into the magic.
One by one, balloons took off, gracefully floating over our heads. Against a big blue sky on a mild July evening, watching the colorful aircrafts ascend was breathtaking.
Getting to be so close to the balloons as they were inflated just added to the pleasure. Groups of people seemed to pick a specific balloon and watch the entirety of the inflation process. I happened to catch the inflation of Peg Leg Pete the Pirate Parrot, who is exactly what he sounds like.
Peg Leg Pete is a green parrot pirate with a peg leg, a sword and a pretty snazzy beard. He is flown by Dave and Kathy Reineke of Mahomet, Illinois. The couple has been flying since the early ’80s in a variety of balloons, many of which are special shapes, like Pete.
But the pilots aren’t just in Indianola to fly their alliterative parrot. Currently, Kathy Reineke and her balloon, Sunsational, are in 10th place for the U.S. Women’s National Balloon Championship, which is taking place in Indianola for the first time ever this year during the National Balloon Classic.
In fact, there are five simultaneous competitions taking place at the National Balloon Classic this year: the National Balloon Classic Championship, the National Balloon Classic Pro Cup, the North Central Regional Championship, the State Championship and the U.S. Women’s National Balloon Championship. Attendees can keep up with the leaderboard on the website as well as on the physical leaderboard at Memorial Balloon Field.
But to me, the National Balloon Classic felt nothing like attending a competition. Instead, the experience is one of leisure, awe and community. As a native Iowan, it felt magical and new to watch balloons soar over the cornfields I am so familiar with. It was a refreshing night where almost everyone was looking up, a phenomenon that is less and less common.
Of course, the event doesn’t come without its dangers. On July 25, a few days before the classic kicked off, a hot air balloon pilot had to make an emergency landing in a West Des Moines backyard when the wind changed and blew them off course. And during a predawn flight on Saturday morning, a balloon carrying a pilot and three passengers hit a power line at the National Balloon Classic. The executive director of the classic said in a statement there were no life-threatening injuries from the accident. The son of two of the passengers told WHO-TV his parents and the pilot were being treated at Burn Treatment Center of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
“You always have to be safe and it’s a great sport. But sometimes things happen,” Bill Clemons, balloonmeister (i.e. event director) for the National Balloon Classic, told KCCI.
Clemons discussed the rigorous safety inspections that pilots and balloons must pass in order to take flight with the Des Moines Register in 2018.
“The balloons are considered an aircraft just like an airplane. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) requires that they have an inspection every year or every 100 hours, whichever happens sooner,” explained Clemons, who operates one of three companies in Central Iowa providing licensed inspections.
“People don’t realize when they see a balloon flying, it’s as governed as the 747 that flies over your head.”
There are only first-class seats in the basket of a hot air balloon, even if the adventure comes with some risk. From the safety of the ground, I can confidently say the National Balloon Classic is not to be missed — and it’s hard to, since the colorful orbs can be seen for miles and miles. If you need a break from your weekly slog and want to dabble in a bit of childhood wonder, there is no better place to be than Indianola when the balloons are taking flight. Can’t get enough hot air balloon history? Make a stop at the National Balloon Museum, just a few miles from the Memorial Balloon Field.
I ended my night at the classic with a fresh-squeezed lemonade, a bunch of pictures in my camera roll, and a big smile on my face. Even attending the event by myself didn’t feel lonely, as I was able to join in the awe of the crowd as we watched the giants climb their way into the sky. Walking back to my car through the field, watching the sun slowly set on a sky full of balloons, I felt pleased that magic like that could happen in a place like this. And I, lucky me, only live 32 minutes away.
The National Balloon Classic runs from July 29 through August 6. Tickets are $10 online or $12 at the gate. Check the schedule for music lineup, fireworks and special events.