DANVILLE — The first time Larry Owen flew in a hot-air balloon, high above Vermilion County in 1989 at the Oldsmobile Balloon Classic, he was struck by the calmness.
Ballooning is a uniquely exciting and serene experience, he said. On the ground, the pilot blasts fire into the balloon from its loud propane burner. As the basket rises in the air, though, the feeling becomes serene. Because the balloon is propelled by the wind and not a noisy motor, the riders don’t even feel the breeze, he said.
“It’s very peaceful,” Owen said. “By the end of the weekend, I said, I’ve gotta get me one of these.”
The hobby of hot-air ballooning grabbed hold of Owen and many other Danville natives, including Dean Carlton, during the days of the Oldsmobile Classic, which ended in 2002. After Carlton’s first flight, he quickly became a certified pilot and bought a balloon. Ballooning isn’t a solitary activity, either, because a pilot needs at least one crew mate, but four to five is ideal.
Eventually, his wife and son became pilots as well, and that hobby turned into a family activity. For years, much of the Carltons’ calendar is now planned around balloon festivals.
They’ve made friends in Danville and far beyond through the ballooning community, and after the Oldsmobile Balloon Classic was canceled in 2002, he was at the forefront of bringing a new festival, Balloons Over Vermilion, to Danville in 2016.
Last year, though, Carlton and his ballooning friends barely flew at all. Festivals across the country, including Balloons Over Vermilion, were canceled.
“It’s depressing,” Carlton said. “Along with all the other things that COVID brought, that we didn’t get to do, almost all of our summer is planned around ballooning. All of our family vacations, for the most part, are ballooning related. The absolute worst was, we have friends from across the world that ballooning has brought us together with. Other than Facebook, the only way we get to talk to them is at events.”
This year, Owen, Carlton and the ballooning community are back in their baskets, and Balloons Over Vermilion will be back, with some modifications. A few changes are COVID-19 related, including the fact that the shuttle service from Danville will not be in place. Because balloons can’t fly during the day because of heat transfer from the ground, the event is adding carnival rides, games, and additional food vendors to keep people around all day long.
Carlton is simply happy to be flying again, and to expose others to the hobby he latched on to decades ago.
“You get the thrill of leaving the ground, but it’s not like a jet throwing you back in the seat,” Carlton said. “I have flown well over 800 flights. It’s still exciting to me. I still get the giggle in my belly at 15 feet off the ground. It’s really hard to describe how that feels. Scary, it’s not. It’s exciting. For the most part, you’re standing still. The world is just moving underneath you.”