So I’m a little off the DIY path today, but I had the chance on Friday to fly in the Grand Rapids Hot Air Balloon Festival, and it was just WAY too cool not to share with you guys. I’ve never flown in a hot air balloon before (and may never get a chance to again) so this was SUCH a cool experience – totally worth being out before dawn for!
Last year my husband and I were at a charity event for Rocco’s Heart, and HLHS Foundation, and we bid on (and WON!) a balloon ride in the silent auction. So our trip on Friday with Mike Nelson of Indy Balloon Promotions in the WGVU balloon was his donated time, and we SO appreciated it! We took a short media flight to kick off the Grand Rapids Hot Air Balloon festival, and got an inside look at what it means to be a balloon pilot.
Meet our pilot and crew, Mike & Keely Nelson. Mike’s one of those guys you would probably call, a character. There were times during the prep and the flight itself where I was reminded of the storm chasers in the movie Twister. Like, a little bit crazy, a lot of fun, and someone you trust and follow (without stopping to reconsider) when you’re in the moment. Unlike Twister, we were of course adrift in calm skies – thank goodness! – but just being around someone with Mike’s energy was contagious. You can’t NOT love the experience when you’re riding with someone so passionate about it.
The best times to fly are in the hour after dawn and before sunset. Balloons can’t be off the ground unless the sun is officially up, so it means a lot of early mornings for the crew on flight days! We arrived at the fairgrounds shortly after 5:30 am, and watched the sun come up over 15-20 balloons all being inflated at once. It was amazing how big those things are, and to have them all together like that… there was a balloon overhead no matter where you stepped!
We rode “Tickled Pink”, which flies the WGVU banner (and was perfectly suited to this Laker alum). They inflate the balloons with fans to get them started, and then add heat at the end to get them off the ground. It was amazing – and surprisingly really loud – to get these air-powered crafts launched.
It’s pretty amazing. It only takes about 20-30 minutes to get a balloon unpacked and up and in the air. Balloons took off every couple of minutes, which is a gorgeous thing to see. It goes quickly – once a balloon is up, these guys are ready to go.
As soon as Tickled Pink was up, we were ready to fly. Mike’s giving us our cue here that it was time to take off! You can see, we had a beautiful sunrise setting the scene for our big experience.
I have never seen a hot air balloon launch up-close before – much less the launch of several balloons at once. I’d love to see it again, after our first flight! And if it was cool from the ground? Check out the view from the sky!
Mike told me a little story that you can take a hot air balloon once or twice, but not three times.
At three, you just buy a balloon.
I can totally see why. It was amazing.
The best part of our route was flying over a little pond, where the pilots all took it as a personal challenge to touch the water with their baskets. (If you ever see a balloon going down over the water, chances are, they’re just having a bit of fun with it!) Mike told me he wouldn’t get his feet wet. (He made no promises about our feet, incidentally.)
When we landed, Mike gave us some history about ballooning – both his experience, and also hot air balloon history and traditions. We finished up with a little champagne toast (it was a HOT AIR BALLOON, it’s perfectly acceptable to toast before breakfast, haha). There’s a story behind that, too, but it was a special part of our trip, so I encourage you to ask a pilot sometime about bringing a bit of bubbly on board, and see what they tell you!
If you’d like to see a little more up-close and personal, I’ve got a really quick video I posted to YouTube highlighting some of the fun we had!
Mike Nelson is based out of Indianapolis, and if you’re in the area and looking for a hot air balloon experience of your own, you can check out Indy Balloon Promotions and schedule your own private flight on Tickled Pink! He also pilots a second balloon exclusively for competitions, and he works with schools in his Ballooning4Education program, which is a program to inspire and encourage kids in a hands-on way.
I took my kids back to the festival in the evening to see an evening launch (and chase the balloons!) from the ground. They had a blast watching them, and it was really special after knowing more about ballooning!
Note: Indy Balloon Promotions and WGVU did not sponsor or endorse this post, but did donate this flight to Rocco’s Heart, an HLHS Foundation, a charity that is personally important to me. This recap is not part of a paid campaign, just a great personal experience.