Balloons at night, kites take flight

Balloons light up the night at Vince Grady Field on Saturday, as the pilots light up their balloons on the final night of the Macomb Balloon Rally.

Nicholas Ebelhack

 The 30th annual Macomb Balloon Rally concluded Saturday night with the popular Balloon Glow, where Western Illinois University students and their families, along with Macomb community members, were in attendance to watch the pilots show off their hot air balloons as the sun set.

 The festival, which began Friday afternoon with a balloon flight at Vince Grady Field and a performance by Western’s Jazz Studio Orchestra, was unable to fire its Saturday morning competition due to weather. The competition was going to be its original single pilot format after last year’s team competition.

 “The Black Pearl” pilot Joe Ritchey explained how the competition would have worked had the weather been clear enough to fire off. According to Ritchey, those who would be expecting something out of “Around the World in 80 Days” would be surprised at what balloon competitions are today.

 “It’s called a balloon race, but it’s not about how fast you are, it’s about how accurate you can be with your landing,” Ritchey said. “We all try and get to a predetermined target and then we measure who gets closest to that target.”

 Ritchey has been coming to the Macomb Balloon Rally for over 20 years now and still comes after moving from central Illinois to Little Rock, Arkansas. He discussed how piloting a balloon is difficult, and why the weather plays such a huge factor in the safety of an event.

 “The wind plays a big factor in trying to get to the target,” Ritchey said. “It blows in different directions at different altitudes, and a balloon isn’t equipped with any sort of steering wheel so we are at the mercy of the wind. As pilots we want to manipulate the balloon with the wind parameters of the day to try and get the balloon to that predetermined point.”

 Another long–time Balloon Rally–goer, however not a pilot, was Macomb resident and construction worker Jeff Richards. He said that he liked being able to come with his family.

 “I’ve been coming to the balloon festival for more than 20 years now and I absolutely love it,” Richards said. “I’m glad that I get to share these moments with my wife and kids. Honestly, one of our first few dates was at the festival back in 2002, so
it’s kind of spectacular to look back at the festival from years past.”

 His 5–year–old son, Jackson, shared his favorite part of the rally.

 “I like the Elvis balloon because it’s the biggest and because it’s a different shape than the other balloons,” Jackson said.

 The pilot of the Elvis Tribute Hot Air Balloon, Debby Young, talked about the origins the balloon.

 “Elvis was built by a gentleman in Brazil who loves Elvis, he owns the balloon and I have the job of flying it around the country into different states, so it’s his creation,” Young said. “He has built other balloons, he built a pelican and a whale,
as well as a scuba diver, and those balloons go out and around as well.”

 According to Young, while being the center of  attention was nice, safety is a primary concern during the balloon glow.

 “You have so many people in this community that came out and they deserve to enjoy this event so you want to make sure that everyone is safe and having fun while doing the glow,” Young said. “We are just here for a show and to entertain the crowd, just like Elvis does.”

 Ritchey agreed with Young’s comments about entertaining the crowd with their less–than–usual hobby.

 “The balloon glows are wonderful, just look at this crowd that has gathered here,” Ritchey said. “It’s really exciting for us as pilots to see all of these people and be able to share our sport with them. We’re a close–knit group of people. There’s not that many of us in the country and we are always trying to bring new folks into the group.”