For 50 years, many of the country’s top balloon pilots have flocked to Iowa for fiery competition, quirky antics and unreal summer views.

By Timothy Meinch
April 17, 2020

The next National Balloon Classic  will be July 30-Aug. 7, 2021. 

From up here, earth morphs into an animated terrarium. A turtle surfaces in a farm pond below me. Deer paths weave into a dewy tapestry of grass and thickets. Five horses trot out to pasture beside rows of corn—lined and spaced with surgical precision. And an army of balloons, each taller than a four-story tower, float silently toward their target.

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Brad Luhrs, crew driver for pilot Tim Cloyd, has terms for all the obscure experiences and sights while cruising in a fire-powered wicker basket. “You do a little corn draggin’. Tree ticklin’. Marijuana plant spotting,” he told me while our tires crunched gravel on the backroads of Indianola, Iowa. We were racing to find the perfect launch site.

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Just 20 minutes prior, pre-sunrise, I had crammed shoulder to shoulder with pilots and crews inside a building resembling an airplane hangar. The teams scratched down coordinates for the day’s targets. They checked last-minute wind reports. Then we burst out the doors, into trucks and vans, and down dusty roads.

“This is the Indy 500 of ballooning,” says Bill Clemons, balloon meister (aka race director) for the National Balloon Classic in Indianola. But it’s not a race. More like high-stakes golf meets darts—in the sky. Pilots hurl weighted baggies with streamers at ground targets from a floating basket, while a flame roars directly overhead. To add some fun, an outhouse occasionally appears in the balloon field. First pilot to knock it over with their balloon basket wins extra money.

Indianola became the U.S. epicenter for competitive ballooning in 1970− when it hosted the sport’s premier event just south of Des Moines. The U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship stayed in Indianola for 17 years. When it began rotating to other states in 1989, the National Balloon Classic immediately emerged. It’s now a qualifier for the championship and, for many pilots, the holy grail in balloon competition.

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More than 100 balloons showed up last year, from California, New Mexico, Florida and North Carolina, to claim a piece of the $35,000 purse. Thousands of spectators attend the nine-day event, with fair food and balloon rides. Most spread out lawn chairs, blankets and picnics to watch the horizon like it’s the Fourth of July. Oohs and aahs start at sunrise some days with an announcer naming balloons and pilots as they pop into view on the horizon. The party continues past golden hour when fire-filled balloons illuminate the festival grounds for night glow gatherings.

Rob Bartholomew, a farmer from Carlisle, Iowa, has competed since 1974. He was the last national champion here in '88 and still regularly ranks top of the Classic pack. His yellow-and-black Charlie Brown balloon has a fan following. “He’s been to Japan flying in the world competition. He’s been to Canada,” Bartholomew says like a proud father.

Rob Bartholomew.
| Credit: Blaine Moats

His wife and nephew lead his team. Others recruit parents, their own kids and former classmates. Family or not, the labor, heated competition and lack of sleep form fierce bonds. People have been known to get hooked after one day unfolding an envelope or catching a landing basket—not to mention taking a ride in one.

During my flight, the rush to launch dissolves with the noise on the ground. Silence. Until a hissing blast of propane lifts us to new heights, in search of a different wind stream to redirect our course. I hear a distant hiss, two more, then suddenly dozens of us are billowing into the blue, chasing wind. Some came to win. But for the moment, targets seem like an afterthought.

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Floating Circus Indianola local Tim McConnell and his Under the Big Top crew have a reputation at the National Balloon Classic. He’s nearly always the first pilot off the ground during competitive flights. Look for the gold-and-red floating circus tent.

Next Gen Some old-school pilots stick to paper maps. But technology has added new, sophisticated tools to the sport. Last year, 18-year-old Blake Aldridge of Longview, Texas, made his Indianola debut, flying with just an iPhone and iPad to navigate and read the wind. After crewing for his parents since diapers, he studied under world record balloon pilot Bill Bussey (a fellow Texan known to frequent the Balloon Classic).

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Balloon Anatomy Three elements make up a hot-air balloon: basket, burner and envelope. And every balloon is an FAA-regulated aircraft, with a unique color scheme and pattern, like a lighthouse—or a massive, gravity-resistant snowflake.

License to Float The proper term for a balloon pilot? Aeronaut. And Rob Bartholomew has licensed roughly 600 of them since 1979. The Iowan is one of only 13 FAA examiners who can issue certifications.

Glow with the Flow Mother Nature can rapidly shift between best friend and worst enemy. “Weather is everything,” says race director Bill Clemons. “You can’t fly in rain. You can’t fly in the clouds. And wind has to be below 10 knots. That’s 11 mph.”

After Dark Like a sea of enormous Japanese lanterns, nearly 100 anchored balloons light up the field during Nite Glow Extravaganza. Some nights, crews invite spectators to stand below the towering envelopes and feel the heat.

Credit: Blaine Moats