38 hot air balloonists take to the skies over Howell for Michigan Challenge Balloonfest

The weather cooperated with the start of Michigan Challenge Balloonfest, which kicked off Friday in Howell and will run through Sunday night. 

"We had all 38 pilots actually competing this morning," Phil Clinger, the festival's competition director, said Saturday morning. 

Hot air balloonists from Michigan and as far away as California fired up their balloons early Saturday morning and took to the skies. They flew into the festival site at the Howell High School complex to compete to see who could score the most points. 

In the balloon competition, pilots earn points by tossing bean bag markers closest to the center of X's marked on the ground without touching the ground. 

"We had one target at the main launch field and another at Chemung Hill Golf Club," on Saturday, Clinger said. He said it is always a last minute decision whether weather conditions will allow balloonists to compete and also how many target locations there will be. 

"That's decided 15 minutes before," he said. "We're looking at wind speeds as well as any convective activity, like a chance of rain or thunder storms."

With favorable weather in the forecast, he was optimistic balloons would get another chance to compete Sunday morning, with a fly-in over the festival grounds set for 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. He said there was a good chance other weather dependent events, such as nightly mass balloon launches from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday night's Balloon Glow spectacle would happen. 

"So, it looks like there will be more balloons in the air," he said. 

The balloonists' scores are submitted to the Balloon Federation of America, which keeps a list of how balloonists rank nationally. Rankings by year are posted on the organization's website, www.bfa.net

Marcus Pennala played tennis at a field on the school grounds Saturday morning as balloonists flew in. "The balloons came right through and way down by the field, dropping things on the X," Pennala, of Howell, said. 

"There were a couple of them who could have landed right on the mark, but they didn't. One guy, he came right down, and you could have touched the basket from the ground, and then they kept heading out," Garascia, of Hartland, said. 

Michelle Tokan of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the festival, said Balloonfest got off to a great start Friday night. 

"We had an amazing Friday night," Tokan said Saturday morning. "The balloon launch was amazing and a wonderful way to start the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest weekend."

Around 20 balloons launched from the festival's launch site Friday night as a spectacle from the crowd. It was a fairly full launch field, and only a few did not launch. Another high-flying attraction, Windjammers Stunt Kite Team wowed the crowd. On Saturday, part of the show featured six kite flyers synchronizing their kites' movements. They did circles, lined up in patterns, and never once tangled. 

Renewal by Andersen Skydivers performed several jumps at the festival, swooping over crowds with their parachutes out to land on the event's launch field. On Saturday, three jumpers leaped out of a plane, initially falling at about 120 mph. One sported an American flag, while the others blew blue and red smoke in the air and on the field.

The festival continues Sunday with the second part of the balloon competition set to begin 6-8 a.m. Other highlights Sunday include a 1 p.m. aerial performance by the Windjammers Stunt Kite Team. 

Singer-songwriter Sophi Avocado, 13, will perform on the main stage at 5 p.m. Avocado, who lives in Livingston County and was born in Ann Arbor, wrote her first song at 9 years old and put out her professional EP “Stories” at age 11, according to her website.

Hot air balloons are scheduled to take to the skies from 6 p.m. -8 p.m. for a mass balloon launch, depending on weather. 

Ben "the Lego Man" Radell will work on his downtown Howell inspired Lego city and help kids build their own creations from noon to 5 p.m. His city features a hot air balloon in the sky above buildings modeled after downtown Howell. 

A Family Fun Tent presented by Ann Arbor Hands-On-Museum, the Howell Carnegie District Library and Bucket Fillers will feature crafts and games from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

A Wade Shows carnival with a Ferris wheel, rides and other attractions will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday for $25. Admission to the festival is $5 per person, with children ages 3 and under free.  For a full schedule of events, visit www.michiganchallenge.com

Photo credits to howell.org