High Flying Fun at The Michigan Challenge Balloonfest

The Michigan Challenge Balloonfest returns to Howell on June 22-24, 2012 with high-flying fun. Today, Michael Helms, Crew Chief for Ron Centers and the PNC Hot Air Balloon at the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest, discusses his role within this exciting event. To learn more, visit michigan.org.

I am the “Crew Chief” for the PNC Hot Air Balloon. PNC Bank is the major sponsor again for this, the 22nd year of the event. As crew chief, it is my responsibility to assist the captain, Ron Centers, in getting the PNC balloon ready for the event. This involves making certain all equipment is ready for inflation for as many as six times during the event, including for special media presentations and flights. The 2012 event will feature 44 balloons from across Michigan and the United States. It will be a magnificent sight to see 44 balloons brought out onto the field at Howell Public Schools to prepare for a launch.

There are several phases to a balloon flight.  After a briefing on weather conditions, the balloon inflation process is the first phase. It involves laying out the balloon – or “envelope” – on the launch field and attaching it to the basket and burners. In the next step, a large fan, with an airplane propeller-like blade is used to fill the envelope with cold air.  As soon as the envelope is sufficiently full, the pilot (who must be licensed just as a fixed wing pilot) will light the burners and heat the air inside the envelope. Since hot air rises, as soon as the air inside is heated, the balloon will stand tall.

The pilot will continue to put heat into the envelope until he is ready for passengers or crew to climb into the basket. When the air has been heated to the necessary temperature, the balloon will begin to rise, the crew chief will give the “all clear,” and the balloon will rise into the sky to be carried gently aloft by friendly breezes.  The crew chief and crew will then pack up the fan and launch tether and follow the balloon.

The Michigan Challenge Balloonfest is a balloon competition with several types of events during the weekend for the balloon competitors. One type of event finds the balloonists flying off downwind to attempt to locate a predetermined target where – if close enough – the pilot will fling a bean bag with his pilot/balloon number nearest the center of a large “X” placed on the ground. There may be one or two other like targets downwind of the first as well. Points are gained by being as close to each target as possible.

Another event is similar but often takes place on morning flights where pilots will try to find a location off-site, a minimum distance away, and try to fly in toward the school grounds where an “X” is again located for a bean bag drop and points. Another target will again be downwind after pilots fly away from the school.

Finally, an event called “Hare and Hound” may be scheduled whereby a lone balloonist will fly away from the school, ahead of all the others, and lay down a target at his or her choice for all other balloonists to attempt to hit with their bean bags.

When the pilot is ready to land, he will notify his crew chief of his intent. It is the responsibility of the crew to be at the intended landing site (almost always unknown until found at the last minute) and request the landowners permission for the pilot to land, and for the crew to deflate the balloon and pack up for the return trip to the launch site.

On evenings at the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest, we will take the PNC Hot Air Balloon back to the school at dusk where we, and many of the other pilots will reinflate their balloons for what is know as the “Balloon Glow”, a spectacular display of what appear to be huge balloon “luminaria”. The huge balloon envelopes are inflated again and lighted inside from the glow of the balloon burners – an amazing and colorful display to see. 

The Michigan Challenge Balloonfest is our favorite event of the year, and Pilot Ron Centers and I look forward to coming to Howell - by far one of the friendliest cities we visit each year.

Michael Helms has been Crew Chief for Ron Centers and the PNC Hot Air Balloon at the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest for the past 7 years. He loves the freedom that comes with flying balloons and truly enjoys the hospitality of Howell each summer.