Love at first ride: An inside look at ballooning with the Midland Balloon Festival

This year’s Riverdays Festival in Midland partnered with the ever-popular Midland Balloon Festival, hosting 26 pilots and 13 teams from around Michigan as well as some from Ohio and Indiana. Here is what goes into getting the event – and the balloons – off the ground each year.

Teams shown heating up Downtown Midland during the Main Street Glow event.

Midland Balloon Festival
For Danielle King, Midland Balloon Festival veteran and the event’s jack-of-all-trades coordinator, it is an event she looks forward to every year. With 17 years of ballooning experience, King helps the event run smoothly each year, handling media, sponsor flights, pilot check-in, travel information and much more.

“I’m not sure if I even have a title, it’s a little bit of everything and some days I’m the ‘head gofer’ to keep everything on track” she says with a laugh.

A team prepares equipment prior to a morning flight.

Balloon festivals take care to provide the teams with food, lodging, welcome information and supplies like propane, which King helps coordinate.

The teams are a close-knit group who she describes as family. King’s husband is a pilot himself, whom she met through ballooning and her father is a long-time pilot as well, so she more or less grew up around balloons.

“It’s a small group, so everyone knows each other and it is a really great family activity,” says King. “And for me, the coolest thing about flying in Midland is being able to see my hometown from a different vantage point.”

A balloon built to today’s standards can run for 500 or more hours averaging 40-50 hours per year, with the upper envelope or the balloon eventually needing to be replaced.

King notes on a clear day, if you get up high enough, you can see the bay.

“It’s such a great event and we look forward to the festival every year,” says King. “And after what is a whirlwind weekend of events, we take a breather for a few days and immediately start planning for next year, from reviewing what went well, to preparation for what we can do to better the event for the upcoming year.”

Wind speed at 400-500 feet is often upwards of 12-13 miles per hour.

Taking flight

For Scott Strouse, executive director of the Midland Balloon Festival and commercial air balloon pilot, he was hooked after his first ride. Strouse has been flying for 23 years and has over 400 pilot hours.

“It’s a running joke in the industry that your first ride costs $250 and your next is $25,000 for a balloon of your own,” says Strouse. “And for me that was true, I was hooked and knew I wanted to get into flying.”

Balloons lit up at night during Riverdays and the Midland Balloon Festival.

Pilots have to pass a rigorous set of written tests, training and complete a minimum of 10 hours of flight instruction, but often complete much more before they are off flying on their own as a pilot. There are many factors that go into flying that pilots must consider, like wind speed, direction, time of day and more.

Strouse says with all the factors to consider, quite a bit is under the pilot’s control.

“We have more control up there that what most people think,” he says. “Wind speeds change at different altitudes quite dramatically. For example, Saturday morning of the festival this year wind speeds on the ground were zero, increasing to six to seven miles per hour at 100-200 feet and up to 12-13 miles per hour at 400-500 feet. Those are perfect conditions for flying and gives us plenty to work with in terms of steerage.”

Planning and preparation are already underway for 2020.

Strouse notes a good used system runs about $25,000 on average and tracks usage off of hours. A balloon built to today’s standards can run for 500 or more hours averaging 40-50 hours per year, with the upper envelope or the balloon eventually needing to be replaced.

“It’s like buying a boat, except if you don’t live on a lake, you may only use it 10 times a year,” says Strouse. “Where as with a balloon, I may take 30-40 flights in a season easily.”

Strouse notes his favorite thing about flying is the ability to disconnect from the problems of the day and enjoy the view. “Flying gives you the ability to just leave everything else going on in life on the ground for a few hours and take in the scenery,” he says. “We get to enjoy a different perspective, and often we’ll see groups of deer running into a forest, birds in flight or kids running out from their house below to see the balloon pass by.”   

Morning and evening flights are required to give the pilots the most steerage and control.

While the teams from Midland’s Balloon Festival are mostly from Michigan, Ohio and Indiana and fly mostly in those states, one of Strouse’s dreams is to fly in the Leon International Balloon Festival in Leon Mexico, one of the top three ballooning events in the world. 

With over 20 years of flying under his belt, Strouse has gained many experiences and memories, but there is one that hasn’t been topped. Often when he is done flying and lands, sometimes in a large field or parking lot, people and kids often come running up to see the balloon in action.

If he has fuel left in the tank, he will often exhaust it taking kids up in the balloon five to ten feet off the ground for a few minutes each until the fuel runs out.

One such trip 12-13 years ago, seemingly similar short rides with a group of kids in a church parking lot in Midland left a mark on him that has stuck to this day. It wasn’t until the next morning when he received a call from the father of one of the kids who had taken a short ride the day before. Strouse’s voice trembles even a little today recounting the story.

A balloon seen through the Tridge in Downtown Midland.

“He said to me, ‘you did something great yesterday that you probably didn’t even know’ and I was a little perplexed” recalls Strouse. “He told me that his wife asked him to go talk to his son before bed and the son said ‘Dad I flew in a hot air balloon today’ which was the first words he ever spoke at six or seven years old as a child with Autism previously unable to speak.”

“Taking the balloon ride unlocked something in him and he was able to say his first words,” says Strouse, choked up still to this day. “We do things out of the kindness of our hearts and sometimes we don’t know the impact it will have on someone.”

“So when you do something for someone, you never know how powerful it might be.”

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.