Each summer, a grassy patch of Jackson becomes magical, birthing giants that swell into mountains and then, plucked from the earth, drift and diminish into the great beyond.
For over forty years, adventurers armed with helium and propane have gathered in Jackson, most recently at Ella Sharp Park, for the city’s annual Hot Air Jubilee.
For residents and visitors, that means three days of funnel cakes, hot rods, helicopter rides, and faces turned to the sky to watch in wonder as ridiculously big, impossibly graceful behemoths barge their way over the treetops to mingle with the clouds.
As for the pilots, they have one of the coolest hobbies around, said Dale Wilson, Battle Creek-area resident and pilot of balloon Seventh Heaven.
After flying in the Jackson festival for 20 years and piloting balloons for four decades, Wilson has no intention of stopping any time soon.
Jackson’s Ella Sharp Park provides the perfect venue for ballooning, with its wide-open spaces, trees that block wind during takeoff, and nearby landowners who don’t mind a balloonist randomly landing in their field or backyard, Wilson said.
And Jackson’s Hot Air Jubilee offers the perfect place for onlookers to gather, to wonder, and to revel in a little bit of magic.
#1 – As long as weather behaves, the festival treats visitors to scheduled balloon launches and fly-ins each morning and evening, with balloon glows as the sun sets.
“You go to have fun. And that’s what we do here,” Wilson said. “It’s just a good place to fly.”
As long as weather behaves, the festival treats visitors to scheduled balloon launches and fly-ins each morning and evening, with balloon glows as the sun sets.
Amid the park’s shady trees, vendors sell crafts and trinkets as families and groups of friends meander happily. Nearby, volunteers at the kids’ tent clap and cheer as kiddos play ring-the-bottle and mini golf.
From the distance come smells of hot oil and sugar as people stand in line at the food trucks, dreaming of elephant ears and fresh-squeezed lemonade.
Experiencing the Jackson Hot Air Jubilee
At the center of the gentle chaos, several hundred people sit in camping chairs, chatting, eating hot dogs, and watching an empty grass field.
Patiently, they wait, knowing, expecting.
Kids dart and giggle as parents stretch out their legs. Dogs sniff shoes and look for dripped ice cream.
At last, an announcer breaks into the music playing on the loudspeaker. The pilots have finished their meeting and are on their way to the field, the announcer says. The crowd cheers.
#2 – Pilots at the event compete to earn points in hopes of winning cash prizes.
On the field, behind a row of parked vans, official-looking people move purposefully, unfolding something on the ground, straightening, arranging.
Then, behind the van on the left, something starts to grow.
As people in vests bustle and adjust, a blue hill begins to grow. Now it’s as high as a man’s knees. Now it’s as high as his shoulders. Now, he looks up and up as it grows, blooms, mountains above him.
Elsewhere on the field, other colors are rising from the earth like bubbles in soup. No longer flat, the grassy field swells into hills of rainbows, bigger and bigger and too big to fit in so suddenly small a space.
First content to lie on their sides, the balloons soon grow restless as they grow round, ready to tip top-side up. A line attached to the crest of each is held, at the other end, by a person who leans back mightily, feet racing to keep up as their body is hauled forward.
Their balloons upright and ready to soar, drivers and their lucky passengers climb awkwardly over the sides of woven baskets. With a blast of flame, the first balloon tugs upward. The crowd cheers.
Soon, several others follow, rising quickly up, up, above trees and into a limitless sky. Below, on the field, more hills grow, fill, tilt upward, take their leave of the earth.
One after another, dozens of balloons, far more than should logically fit on that magic field, grow and rise and shrink into the distance, an adoring crowd applauding for each and waving back to the arms and grins flung over the sides of the rising baskets.
“Remember, folks, you could fit a house in one of those things,” the announcer says, reminding attendees to come back at dusk to see the balloons again, tethered and lit up against the darkened sky.
#3 – Hot air balloons don’t come with steering wheels. Pilots only control up and down, with left and right determined by the wind.
The launch over, the crowd makes its way to the food trucks and planetarium, where free six-minute shows give a glimpse of what it feels like to be up in the air, peaceful and free, under a hot air balloon.
When storms threaten the area, launches can be delayed or even scrapped altogether. Some attendees grumbled ― a little rain never hurt anyone, they said ― but, for those launching themselves into the air, caution could spell the difference between safety and disaster.
Invited to see the balloon baskets up close, the crowd mobbed the grounded pilots like rock stars.
Hot air balloons don’t come with steering wheels, Wilson told a woman in the crowd. Pilots only control up and down, with left and right determined by the wind.
They start flights not sure where they will land and direct their airborne ships by smart use of wind direction and years of experience, Wilson said.
“Take-offs are optional,” he added. “Landings are mandatory.”
For some of the festival’s flights, pilots start elsewhere, making their way to the park where watchers wait, scanning the skies for the first colorful giant to appear.
The first approaching balloons of the morning were heard before they were seen, propane-fueled blasts roaring in the distance like fire-breathing dragons.
#4 – A house could fit inside of a hot air balloon.
Soon, as onlookers pointed and raised their cameras, the balloons came into view, peek-a-booing above the trees.
Pilots at the event compete to earn points in hopes of winning cash prizes. This day, the pilots demonstrated their prowess by dropping objects out of their balloon onto a giant X in the middle of the previous night’s launching field.
Each wielding a bean bag with a long tail attached and a rubber ducky attached to a plate, or a “pond,” pilots steered one by one toward the field, lowering and rising in hopes of the best drop.
Some let go from far over the ground. Others, riding the luck of the wind, lowered down to within inches of the grass, leaning over the sides of their baskets and neatly setting their packages on the X.
From the baskets came high-fives and jaunty waves to an appreciative crowd as the balloons once again sailed out of sight in a sky made brighter by a little bit of magic.