Balloonists bring hot air to annual Howell shindig

Melissa Preddy
Special to The Detroit News

Up, up and away, in my beautiful balloon!

Chances are more than a few people will be humming that catchy Fifth Dimension hit this weekend at the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest in Howell.

For the 31st year, the celebration of hot-air ballooning will take place in the Livingston County community, drawing local enthusiasts, international competitors and spectators to the Howell High School complex.

It’s a festival for family fun as well as a chance for a close-up view at a serious sporting event, said Michelle Tokan, director of the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest.

“We have the reigning national and international champions competing,” she said. “Over the years we’ve had people from as far as London and Japan, as well as all over the United States.”

Among the pilots will be Shawn Raya, a second-generation balloonist from Oxford who says he basically grew up coming to the Howell event.

Hot-air balloon activity is limited to early-morning and early-evening hours when strong thermal updrafts and downdrafts won’t interfere, said Raya, a national competitor who will be flying in 11 events this year, some as far away as Texas, with help from corporate sponsor, Sullair.

Balloons likely will fly into the high school complex during the morning sessions from 6-8 a.m., and be flying out of the complex during the evening sessions from 6-8 p.m., he said. Balloonists – who control their aircraft by regulating the amount of warm air inside the balloon envelopes – compete by maneuvering to drop small sandbags on large Xs the organizers draw in fields or other areas. The more precise the landing is, the higher the score.

“And that drop might be from inches above the ground or thousands of feet,” said Raya. “It all depends on the weather.”

Balloon flights may be limited to morning and evening but the action at the Balloonfest is nonstop from 5 p.m. Friday when skydivers precede a mass balloon launch, followed by fireworks after dark. The schedule runs through Sunday evening when another mass balloon launch will close the fest sometime after 6 p.m., weather depending.

A $25 weekend pass provides admission and re-entry “for as many people as you can fit in your car,” said Tokan. “We think it’s a real bargain.”

This year’s balloon festival also features stunt kite demonstrations, sky diving shows, a singing contest and Wade Shows carnival rides and games. The “Landing Zone” family area will offer educational nature presentations, games, fitness activities and “Paint and Pour” art classes for kids, teens and adults.

The fest also sponsors a juried art fair where crafters sell their wares. And new this year, Tokan said, is an open-air marketplace where non-handmade items such as T-shirts and souvenir merchandise will be on sale.

Note that some activities are free with the paid admission ticket while others, such as carnival rides, the painting classes and of course food and shopping are extra.

At nearby Livingston County Spencer J. Hardy Airport, an airshow (free admission) featuring aerobatics, fighter jets and other crafts will be taking place Saturday. While separate from the balloon festival, Tokan expects pilots will be doing flyovers of the balloon festival. And the downtown Howell Farmers’ Market will be open Sunday morning along with other merchants and eateries.

Tokan, a balloon crew member herself, says she’s enjoyed seeing the growth of the annual festival over the years.

“We have people who attended as young adults now bringing their grandchildren,” she said. “It’s become a real tradition.”

Melissa Preddy is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

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For more information about the balloon festival events, fees and parking, visit for schedules and a downloadable brochure.

Get details of the airshow at

To learn more about ballooning, visit the website of the Balloon Federation of America: