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How Indianola’s National Balloon Classic came to be one of the top hot air ballooning events in the United States.


Approximately 15,000 people reside in the city of Indianola, which is roughly 30 miles south of Des Moines. But when the National Balloon Classic sets up camp for nine days every summer, anywhere from 75,000 to 95,000 people travel from across the country to watch and fly hot air balloons.

So what makes Indianola such a popular destination for ballooning? Read on to find out. But in order to really understand what makes the National Balloon Classic so special, you’ll have to see it for yourself when it hits town this Friday, July 24, through Aug. 1.


The National Balloon Classic is nine days of balloon-filled fun in Indianola from July 24 to Aug. 1.

The National Balloon Classic is nine days of balloon-filled fun in Indianola from July 24 to
Aug. 1.


A hot air balloon hotspot

Indianola’s National Balloon Classic is the second-largest ballooning event in the United States, yet many people right here in Des Moines don’t even know it exists. Staci Scheurenbrand has been executive director of the Classic for two years and has lived in Indianola since she was a kid. Since working for the Classic, she’s realized that the event, while it’s known as a premier ballooning event throughout the country, is not quite as well known near its own home.

“I just could not believe the number of people that said, ‘I didn’t know Indianola had a balloon event’ — and they live right here in Des Moines,” Scheurenbrand said.

Few people know that the modern hot air balloon was actually created by an Iowan. Paule Edward (Ed) Yost of Bristow, Iowa, developed the modern propane burner system that allows pilots to carry their fuel on board with them. He also had several other related patents, including the teardrop design of the balloon envelope. He made the first flight in his new invention on Oct. 22, 1960, and has been known as the “Father of the Modern Day Hot Air Balloon” ever since.

In 1970, the Balloon Federation of America (BFA) was looking for a site to host the National Hot Air Balloon Championship. The BFA president, Don Kersten of Fort Dodge, led them to the Iowa State Fairgrounds, but it was decided that the site didn’t have enough space for the preliminary events. For that reason, the BFA chose to have only the 10 finalists of the competition do a final mass ascension in front of the grandstand, while the preliminary events, which narrowed the competitors from 18 to the final 10, were held in Indianola at Simpson College’s athletic fields.

The first event was so successful that it led the U.S. National Championships to return to Indianola for the next 18 years. At that point, it was decided that the championships would travel to other locations throughout the U.S., being hosted by one community for three years before moving on to another location.DSC_0155

But Indianola wouldn’t be without its own balloon event. In 1989, the National Balloon Classic was born.

“Indianola has always been near and dear to many pilots and to the community, and they weren’t ready to not have an annual balloon event,” said Scheurenbrand. “That’s when the National Balloon Classic formed, and that’s what it’s been ever since.”

The event has grown to become one of the largest — and longest — of its kind in the country, second only to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico. Indianola caps its registration at 100 balloons, while Albuquerque has about 700. Both festivals are nine days long, whereas many other festivals throughout the country are only two or three days.

“We’re definitely a premier balloon event,” said Al Appenzeller, a hot air balloon pilot from Indianola who sits on the Classic’s Board of Directors. Appenzeller — known as “Crazy Al” — has been flying at the Classic since 2004. “It’s a beautiful area. I mean, almost all the time we see deer, and we see wild turkey, and we see pheasant. It’s a view you that you cannot get from the ground.”

Smaller balloon festivals take place in several other Iowa towns, including Creston, Waterloo and one that started five years ago at Lake Red Rock in Marion County. Appenzeller is the race director for the Lake Red Rock Balloon Fest, which was held July 10-12.

Aside from the attractive scenery it offers, Iowa is a popular spot for hot air ballooning because of the weather.

“Iowa has incredible wind conditions,” Scheurenbrand explained. “We get morning stillness that we need, and the evening time is also good. And those are the two times that balloons can fly. Those are the times when winds are almost near perfect conditions.”

The art of flying

Hot air balloons are beautiful to watch from the ground, and, if you’re not scared of heights, they provide an experience unparalleled by other airborne activities. Though piloting one of those colorful balloons may seem like a free-and-easy sort of job, there’s much more involved than people know.

“Hot air balloon pilots have a saying, which is ‘Your first ride is free; your second ride is $30,000,” said Appenzeller, remembering the first time he rode in one 12 years ago. “That’s how most hot air balloon pilots get their start — they get a ride, and they get hooked.”DSC_0224

There is much more to consider than a fear of heights or a love of balloons when thinking of becoming a pilot. Those who are serious about it have to take courses, pass a written test, log hours of instructed flight time and pass a flying test. Certified pilots have to take a test every other year once they’ve earned their licenses.

There are three levels of piloting: a student pilot, for those 14 years and older; a private pilot, for those 16 and older; and a commercial pilot for those 18 and older.

“There’s not a lot of difference between the private pilot certificate and the commercial, other than the commercial gives you the ability to do rides for hire,” said Appenzeller, a commercial license holder, which also allows him to do instruction for new pilots and flight reviews for current pilots.

Appenzeller earned his license in 2004 after months of training. The requirements to earn his private license included passing a multiple choice Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulated exam with a score of 70 percent or higher, 10 hours of instructed flight with a commercially rated pilot, at least one solo flight, and, after being signed off on those, a check flight with an FAA certified flight examiner. At that point, in order to get his commercial license, Appenzeller logged at least 35 “pilot-in-command” hours, 10 more hours of training, a longer written exam with a score higher than 70 percent, a couple of solo flights and another check flight.

Appenzeller has flown in the National Balloon Classic each year since then. He owns two envelopes — the colorful piece known as the balloon — and one basket. One envelope is the standard teardrop shape known best, and it holds 90,000 cubic feet of air. The other is an oblong football shape that holds 69,000 cubic feet and is used for competitions.

Hot air ballooning as a competitive sport? Sort of.

“There is no racing involved,” Appenzeller said. “We all fly at the speed of air — whatever speed that is.”

Since pilots can’t really control how fast the balloon goes, the competitions take advantage of one thing they do control: height. At balloon events that hold competitions, race directors place multiple targets on the ground at various spots. Appenzeller says during a typical morning flight in Indianola, they’ll have anywhere from three to six targets, depending on the wind movement. Pilots have to start at least a mile back from the first target and fly over the field as they try to drop baggies as close to the targets as possible.

The oblong envelopes work best for this sort of activity because the shape allows pilots more control in changing the balloon’s altitude.

Appenzeller explained that there are different wind directions at different altitudes, so the quicker they can get up and down in between those different layers, the better opportunity they have to hit the target.

The Classic pays out prizes to the top 20 finishers in the competitions, and Appenzeller says it’s always exciting to place — especially considering how the game has changed with the help of technology over the years.

“I always enjoy talking to older pilots, because when they didn’t have some of these electronic tools that we do today, marker drops were, let’s say, 40-50 feet from the center of an X were considered pretty good drops,” he said. “Now, by today’s standards, that would be considered a very poor drop. Basically, most drops need to be within probably 10 feet or less of the center of the X to be a very good drop.”

The technology pilots use today can be anything from a GPS, laptop or tablet. Those devices allow them to use real-time maps that show current locations and plug in coordinates of the targets.

Each pilot is also required to have a barometer and an altimeter on board at all times. A barometer tells pilots whether they are ascending, descending or static, while an altimeter shows how high they are in the sky. They also carry a temperature gauge to measure the temperature inside the envelope.

“On average, it requires about 120-150 degree difference from the outside ambient air temperature to the air temperature inside the envelope to produce lift, so you can actually get a balloon lighter than the air so that it will rise,” said Appenzeller.


A premier event

The National Balloon Classic has grown to be one of the best-known balloon events in the country, and even around the world. It’s had pilots from Japan and at least one global sponsor.

Organizers aim to make the event better each year, offering entertainment and things to do daily. So even if the wind causes a flight delay or cancel one day, visitors won’t have made the trip for nothing.

The 2015 schedule is filled with live music, vendors, a parade and one special event that is returning for its second year: Dawn Patrol.IMG_1464

“Dawn Patrol is when balloons inflate on the field in the morning at 5:15 a.m., and they fly away,” Scheurenbrand explained. “And that’s very, very unique because balloons don’t fly in the dark — obviously, they don’t have headlights. But they do have special lanterns that fly from their balloons.

“When we’ve got balloons in the dark flying — they look like giant lanterns just lighting up the sky, because once they hit their burners, they light up and then they go dark again, and it’s really neat to see,” she continued.

Dawn Patrol is a particularly special addition to Indianola’s festival because it’s the first time it’s been done in the Midwest. It was suggested for last year’s event by an Omaha pilot who saw it at the Albuquerque balloon festival and thought it would be a good addition to the Classic.

“One of the things I think is awfully special (about the Classic) is that we have pilots from all over the country who are invested in this event,” said Scheurenbrand. “They’re not just providing a show, but they’re team members, too. They want to compete first and foremost, but they also want to make it a wonderful experience for all of the guests and visitors.”

In addition to Dawn Patrol, there’s also an evening event called Nite Glow that offers another unique experience.

For Nite Glow, the balloons inflate but remain grounded in the field. Pilots wait for it to get dark and then pull the burners so all the balloons glow. Scheurenbrand says they look like colorful light bulbs across the field.

Since all of the balloon activities take place in the early morning and evening, the Classic also offers several other options to keep visitors entertained.

A live music schedule has a different band performing on the stage every night, starting with The Nadas on Friday, July 24. Other acts include the Monday Mourners (July 27), Bonne Finken and the Collective (July 31), and Decoy (Aug. 1).

Food concessions and vendors will be open during both the morning and evening flights, offering everything from coffee — necessary for those watching Dawn Patrol — to ice cream and pizza.

The National Balloon Museum will be open during the day, and Scheurenbrand suggests visiting the Warren County Fair for those attending the Classic July 24-27.

“I think one of the best times to visit Indianola during this event is the first weekend, because the Warren County Fair is still going on,” she said. “(It’s) a very unique event in itself because there’s not a lot of county fairs like it that are out there anymore.”

Other special events in the Classic’s schedule are the Wacky Classic Parade on Saturday, July 25, that goes through the streets of Indianola and the city square; Iowa Wine Night on Saturday, Aug. 1, which offers wine tastings from various Iowa wineries; and the Balloon Challenge 5K Cross Country Race, which takes place at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1. Run or walk the course as the balloons fill the sky above.

And, of course, there is the opportunity to purchase a balloon ride.

Group rides are provided by Galena On The Fly Inc., which brings three large balloons that can hold up to 14 people. Balloon rides are taken every morning and evening, weather permitting. Spots fill up quickly, so advance registration is encouraged, though Scheurenbrand says there is usually an opportunity to get a ride at the last minute or to be added to a wait list in case someone else misses his or her flight. To purchase a ride, call 815-777-2747 or email

The National Balloon Classic is the type of family-friendly event that aims to provide a one-of-a-kind experience for everyone involved, and it’s not just the spectators who look forward to it all year long.

“The flying is awesome,” said Appenzeller. “It’s quite a spectacular sight, even for us as pilots — up there with, you know, almost 100 other balloons. It’s just exhilarating.” CV


National Balloon Classic schedule


Friday, July 24

6:30 p.m.: Balloon Flight

Music: The Nadas

Saturday, July 25

5:15 a.m.: Dawn Patrol

6:30 a.m.: Balloon Flight

9 a.m. – 4 p.m.: Indianola Chamber of Commerce Open Air Market

11 a.m.: Wacky Classic Parade

1 p.m.: Balloon Queen Crowning

5:30 p.m: Opening Ceremonies, Des Moines Skydivers/Skydive515

6:30 p.m.: Open the Skies Mass Ascension Balloon Flight

Music: Big Time Grain Co.

Sunday, July 26

6:30 a.m.: Competition Balloon Flight

1-3 p.m.: National Balloon Museum Hall of Fame Induction

6:30 p.m.: Balloon Flight

Dusk: Nite Glow

Music: Damon Dotson Band

Monday, July 27

6:30 a.m.: Competition Balloon Flight

6:30 p.m.: Balloon Flight

Music: Monday Mourners

Tuesday, July 28

6:30 a.m.: Competition Balloon Flight

6:30 p.m.: Balloon Flight

Music: Randy Burk and the Prisoners

Wednesday, July 29

5:15 a.m.: Dawn Patrol

6:30 a.m.: Competition Balloon Flight

6:30 p.m.: Balloon Flight

Dusk: Nite Glow Extravaganza

Music: Final Mix

Thursday, July 30

6:30 a.m.: Competition Balloon Flight

6:30 p.m.: Balloon Flight

Music: Past Vertical

Friday, July 31

6:30 a.m.: Competition Balloon Flight

6:30 p.m.: Balloon Flight

Music: Bonne Finken and the Collective

Saturday, Aug. 1

5:15 a.m.: Dawn Patrol

6:30 a.m.: Competition Balloon Flight

8:30 a.m.: Balloon Challenge 5K Cross Country Race

6:30 p.m.: Balloon Flight

Dark: Fantastic Fireworks

Music: Decoy


Fun facts

One of the pilots’ favorite skill contests is the Don Kersten Memorial Outhouse Challenge, in which they try to knock over an outhouse on the balloon field. Flying over the Indianapolis Speedway in 1966, Kersten caught a sudden wind change and knocked over an outhouse, which was occupied at the time.

Pilots must first go through ground school and in-flight training before earning their piloting license.

Depending on the size of the balloon, and the weight of the basket, pilots typically burn between 15 to 30 gallons of propane per flight. That amount can increase significantly for large, multi-passenger balloons.

Balloon flights typically occur between 6:30-7 a.m. and 6:30-7 p.m. because winds aloft are normally the calmest at those times.

Branden Bloom, the 2013 Classic champion and Indianola native, was the youngest pilot to claim the top spot. He was 20 years old.

The first known records of hot air balloons in Indianola are from 1903, when the Pawnee Bill’s Wild West and Great Far East show came to the Warren County Fair.

Look for “Under The Big Top” to be the first balloon in the air on most flights. Indianola pilot Tim McConnell takes pride in being the first to launch.

Champagne after a flight was originally given to appease farmers for landing on their crops. Serving champagne after a flight is still a long-held tradition today.

The building that houses the National Balloon Museum in Indianola was designed to suggest two inverted balloons with baskets.

The first balloon flight in Iowa occurred on October 9, 1856, in Muscatine.

Different forms of gondolas have been used in the past, including metal and fiberglass baskets. Pilots eventually settled on wicker baskets because they absorbed more contact during landings.

The U.S. Ballooning Hall Of Fame is housed right here in Indianola, in the National Balloon Museum.

The National Balloon Classic, preparing for its 26th consecutive year in Indianola, is one of the longest-running continuous annual ballooning events in the United States.

Along with being one of the longest-running hot air balloon events, the National Balloon Classic is also the second-largest balloon event in the United States, with close to 100 balloons in the air.

Iowa-born Ed Yost invented the modern hot air balloon in 1960.

– compiled by Blake Dowson for the National Balloon Classic

One Comment

  1. Suzie says:

    Luving it ,… Family! Balloon ride up looking forward to getting up and above… Neat upview.

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