Photo courtesy of Max Mitchell
Hot air balloons with unusual shapes such as this elephant one owned by Max Mitchell of Champaign are crowd favorites at balloon events.

Max Mitchell of Champaign and Patty Williams of Centralia like to go up, up and away in some beautiful balloons. Longtime licensed hot air balloon pilots, the two are part of an enthusiastic group who plan to get high this summer.

You can join the fun by heading to a variety of events in and around Illinois, including some that offer tethered rides. Both pilots point to the quiet, serene feeling of watching balloons drift overhead and some interesting shapes as reasons the sport is so appealing.

Dean Carlton of Danville, past president of the Balloon Federation of America, agrees, saying hot air balloons are pretty to watch. "They are fun, they are relatively rare and they go slow so lots of people can see them."

For many area balloonists, the season kicked off June 17-19 with the Great Galena Balloon Race, an event Mitchell calls particularly picturesque because of the area's rolling hills.

Among other balloon fests this summer and fall are Danville (July 8-19), Galesburg (July 29-31), the Quad Cities (Aug. 12-13), Centralia (Aug. 19-21), Lincoln (Aug. 26-27), Macomb (Sept. 9-10), St. Louis (Sept. 16-17), Quincy (Sept. 22-23) and Shelbyville (Oct. 7-9).

Those seeking larger events can head to the National Balloon Classic in Indianola, Iowa, to see more than 100 balloons over a nine-day run, July 29-Aug. 6. Or celebrate the 50th anniversary of the granddaddy of hot air balloon events, the Albuquerque (NM) International Balloon Fiesta Oct. 1-9.

Mitchell says fall in the Southwest offers some of the best conditions, with light winds, clear skies and scenic backdrops, and extends the season for balloonists. But the Midwest offers its own gems, with balloons set against corn and soybean fields for photo seekers and festivals with many on-ground activities. Bad weather, of course, can alter any of the events.

Williams, who has been involved with the Centralia event for all of its 33 years, says some 50,000 come for the three-day August gathering, based in Foundation Park. Included are a car show, musical entertainment, a children's area, a craft show and food vendors. Admission is $7 for the whole weekend, making it a true family event, she notes.

This year 35 pilots are registered and plans include on-ground balloon "glows" Friday and Saturday nights, when tethered balloons are filled and lighted. Balloons will lift off Friday night and Saturday and Sunday mornings. Visitors can pay $10 for a tethered ride or watch balloons glide by.

"It is difficult to find landing spots for a race because crops are still in the field so we fly across town and people have really, really enjoyed it," Williams says. Also popular is a special glow with a few balloons in another park, where those who have mobility issues can drive through.

Also accommodating people with mobility issues is Danville's Balloons Over Vermilion, which includes two all-accessible balloons offering tethered rides. Cost is $15 for adults and $10 for children. The July event, marking its sixth year, takes place at the Vermilion Regional Airport and features more than 30 balloons participating in flyouts, evening glows, a children's area, vendors and bands. Admission is $5 (free for 10 and under) with parking another $5.

Another nearby destination is Lincoln, with its Balloons Over 66 event in August. Coordinator Seth Goodman says 30 to 35 balloons will be staged in groups of four to six in multiple takeoff locations around Lincoln. Sunset flights are set for 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Balloonists will lift off at sunrise Saturday morning and participate in a glow after Saturday evening's flight. Lincoln is hosting a downtown barbecue, craft beer event and art show the same weekend.

If you head to St. Louis in September you can catch the 49th annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race. Headquartered in the park's central fields, the event features more than 45 pilots participating in a glow on Friday night from dusk until 9, followed by fireworks. Saturday afternoon brings a race with "hound" balloons chasing a "hare," or lead balloon, skydivers, children's activities, entertainment and food vendors. Admission is free but some VIP tickets for extra privileges may be available on site.

One of the last nearby events happens at Lake Shelbyville in October featuring 10 balloons. Friday night balloons will glow and some may fly at Willow Ridge Winery. Saturday's events at the Shelby County Airport will include a sunrise flight, tethered rides, children's activities and a cookout. Another sunrise flight will take off from the lake's Ninth Street beach in Shelbyville on Sunday.

By attending one or more balloon events, you can be part of what several veteran balloonists call a life-changing experience.

Mitchell, a Champaign County realtor, has been ballooning for 45 years, most of them with wife, Betsy, and eventually their children. "One thing that ballooning has taught us is team-building within the family." He owns two balloons, including an elephant shape that draws attention. He says his family has made friends with balloonists from all over.

Williams, who got her pilot license in 1995, also owned a balloon with her late husband, Larry, and enjoys the camaraderie of other enthusiasts. "I flew hundreds of people every year and had so much fun," she says. She no longer owns a balloon but still flies, teaches others and helps put on the Centralia event.

Jim Phelan, a pilot who helped with the Lincoln event for many years, explains that balloons are an experience and a memory that participants never forget, even if they never fly in one. "A lot of people can get a lot of enjoyment just by looking at balloons."

Mary Bohlen, a Springfield travel writer, hopes to experience her first hot air balloon ride this summer but likely will choose a tethered option.

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