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Potluck: Iowa Hot Air Balloon Competition


High-Altitude Beanbag Toss

Compiled by Carol Bodensteiner
and Mary Gottschalk

“Peaceful” and “serene” are not common words used to describe competition. Yet those are the words spectators utter most frequently to describe the experience of watching hot air balloons compete. They’re also the words balloon pilot Al Appenzeller chooses when he talks about “floating on air.”

“Each flight is unique,” says Appenzeller, who grew up in Indianola, where the National Balloon Classic has been held for 43 years. He’d become blasé about the balloons — until he rode in one. Then he was hooked. “The ride feels different to everyone, but once you experience it, you want to do it again and again.”

Appenzeller is one of 100 aeronauts competing at this year’s Balloon Classic, July 27 to August 4. Balloonists from all over the United States and one from Japan are registered for the nine-day event, reports Greg Marchant, Classic executive director. “We have a lot of repeat pilots. The friendliness of the community and the area they get to fly in keep them coming back.”

Weather permitting, pilots compete in seven races. A balloon meister sets the takeoff point, and balloonists compete to reach marked targets and drop flagged beanbags closest to the centers. Pilots earn points for completing each task, with winners declared at the end of the week.

Piloting a balloon is no simple task, says Appenzeller, who started pilot training in 2003 and became certified and flew his first classic in 2004. “There’s no steering wheel. The only control we have is using layers of air at different altitudes (where wind flows at different rates) to make the balloon go up and down quickly.” Balloon pilots are licensed and regulated by the FAA. Their balloons are inspected annually.

Appenzeller also enjoys the community aspect of ballooning. Family and friends sign on as crew members, helping the pilot launch, chase, and pack the balloon after it lands.

Find more details about the Classic, and maybe even book a flight for yourself, at — C.B.

Photo courtesy Ward and Diane Roscoe

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