Thursday, June 27, 2013

Howell's balloonfest rises to the occassion

Michigan Challenge Balloonfest photo by Susan Pominville

One day I will rock through the blue skies of Michigan in the basket of a hot air balloon. 

For now I’ll just watch other people do it at the 29th annual Michigan Challenge Balloonfest held at the Howell High School complex June 28-30.

“It’s the end of a big decade, and we’ve grown through the years,” said Michelle Tokan, Michigan Challenge director and the gal handling requests from the media to fly. My opportunity was deflated by the weather and other engagements. “Highlights of our 29th year include the balloon launches, three entertainment venues, four national touring displays and an increased social media presence. I think our guests will agree the committee has planned a spectacular party.”

The party was hatched during a meeting in a restaurant.

Dick Rudlaff, a nationally known hot air balloon pilot, was passing through Howell on his way to Battle Creek when it occurred to him that the area would be the perfect place to stage a state championship. He and other pilots had been looking for a location for some time. So, Rudlaff met with Lee Reeves, the then Howell Area Chamber of Commerce president, at a restaurant and pitched the idea for a championship as a major community event.

His hook? The event could really put Howell on the map.

As the group prepared to leave the diner, a woman sitting in the next booth stopped them saying she had overheard the balloonfest plans. She applauded the idea and told the group they should do it. “Reeves laughingly admitted it was like a good omen, boding well for the success of the event,” Tokan said.

In 1985, not long after the meeting, the board of directors – having secured the cooperation of the Howell Public Schools -- inflated their plans for the balloonfest. Today, Rudlaff remains a part of the event and is competition director for it.

“I love the balloon launches,” Tokan said. “I have seen many of them, yet each one has its own personality and character. At the Michigan Challenge, spectators are very close to the launch field and can see the entire inflation process. It’s amazing to see the crowd’s reaction when the balloons lift off the ground.

The Michigan Challenge Balloonfest succeeded in putting Howell on the map and has grown since that first year, adding many other attractions including a carnival and arts festival. Still, Tokan said the centerpiece and drawing-card of the event remains the beautiful ballooning competition.

“The Michigan Challenge attracts some of the best pilots from around the world. Several are from Howell, many from Michigan and others from out of state,” Tokan said.
However, balloons wait for no man, or woman or child. It’s the sun and the weather that dictates their launches. To see the balloons take off on Friday, June 28, you’ll want to be at the launch field by 5 p.m. The mass balloon launch takes place between 6 and 8 p.m. The following morning between 6 and 8 a.m. is the balloon fly-in and actual competitions. If you missed the mass balloon launch on Friday, there’s a second one on Saturday, also between 6 and 8 p.m. The same goes for Sunday: Balloon fly-in between 6 and 8 a.m. and mass balloon launch between 6 and 8 p.m.

“While guests wait for the balloons, there are many family attractions and activities on site,” Tokan said. “A schedule and more information can be found at Michigan Challenge Balloonfest, updates on Facebook and Twitter @balloonfestMI #balloonfest

No rides going on this weekend but Tokan assured me there will be companies providing information on where/how I can learn more.

Up, up and away I go.

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