Look Up: Glass City Balloon Race Returns To Toledo, Bigger and Better

“I don’t think they’re going up,” a crew member standing near me speculates to his fellow hot air balloon teammates. “That balloon took off like a shot and it was pretty erratic. They don’t like that.”

By “they”, he means the group of about 10 pilots standing off to the side of the launching area, discussing that very issue. He’s eyeing them, and the in question, a small pitch-black party balloon. It’s the sort of thing you’d find at a birthday party— or a funeral.

Only now, that little balloon is spinning in the air as part of a wind test performed by Jake Tyler, Balloons Over Toledo owner and event director of the Glass City Balloon Race. If it flies right, they can start considering unpacking the wicker and nylon rigs that will take members of the Toledo media skyward, thus kicking off the 2nd Annual Glass City Balloon Race.

A party balloon is sent up to test air before the balloons will go up with passengers.
A party balloon is sent up to test air before the balloons will go up with passengers.

But that little balloon is up and gone, twisting and spiraling away in what feels like no breeze at all. I worry that I showed up at the field beside Levis Commons— where the events are taking place— before sunrise, for nothing.

“Okay, we’re going,” Tyler announces to the assorted media folks who’ve gathered in the dark of the pre-dawn morning to see what all this balloon hype is about. “But some of the other pilots have decided not to go.”

Wait, what? Why are they not going? What do these experienced balloon folk know that I maybe should know before I go careening skyward in what amounts to a basket directly beneath a propane burner blowing fireballs into a nylon bag? At first I was worried I wouldn’t get to go, now I’m worried that I am.

Jake Tyler, Owner of Balloons Over Toledo and event director of the Glass City Balloon Race.
Jake Tyler, Owner of Balloons Over Toledo and event director of the Glass City Balloon Race.

A new Glass City Tradition

The Glass City Balloon Race, which runs Friday, July 14-Sunday, July 16, is just the latest, coolest reason that summer in NW Ohio rules.

“We have 16 balloons this year, from all over the area— Michigan, Indiana, Ohio. The pilots are going to be competing for competition points throughout the entire weekend for national ranking,” Tyler says.

Part of the weekend’s events including actual balloon races, a sanctioned event within the Balloon Federation of America (BFA): “We have GPS targets all around town. The pilots will be trying to fly to different, what we call tasks, and dropping bean bags with streamers on these Xs, going closest to the center, and they’ll be competing for the championship for the weekend and those will accumulate into their national rankings.”

The wicker gondola that carries passengers beneath a bag of air and propane. Riding in one is something to mark off my… bucket list.

“We do balloon events all over the world,” Tyler explains about his business, which is also his hobby. “Last year, we did something in the Phillipines, we did six weeks in Mexico, flying. A couple years ago, Jessica [his wife and partner in Balloons Over Toledo] and I were talking about bringing one back to Toledo. We did it last year in Maumee, it was very small, but it put the taste in everybody’s mouth.”

Up, up and away

Heading up in the Re/Max balloon, a giant billboard for the national real estate company, our balloon is piloted by Jim Cusick, who has been flying hot air balloons for 13 years. He’s been around hot air balloons for 33 years though, as his dad is a pilot out of Lima. “If there’s a Re/Max balloon up in the Toledo area, it’s probably me flying,” Cusick said.

Pilot Jim Cusick has been around hot air balloons for the last 33 years.
Pilot Jim Cusick has been around hot air balloons for the last 33 years.

Registered by the FAA, Cusick had to take essentially the same licensing procedures as an airline pilot, with less focus on the airport regulation stuff. I’m surprised by how easily and calmly the balloon goes up, controlled by burning propane to control lift. I am also delighted and Cusick can relate. “We say that your first flight will cost you $300, your second flight costs you $30,000,” he says of the infectious hobby.

We head up to around 600 feet, fluctuating between 6-13mph, six balloons in the air total, this morning. “We usually don’t get above a couple thousand feet,” Cusick says. “After that, things tend to look really small.”

Drifting calmly above a landscape that indeed looks like miniature models, you definitely get the appeal and the excitement of ballooning. Now where do I get $30,000 for a balloon of my own?

Touching back down

Hot air balloon pilots can only control the up and the down, the wind controls the horizontal (hence, sending up that party balloon earlier). The other tough aspect? Landing.

We wind up touching down in a family’s rural driveway, a more ideal spot than their rain-soaked fields with ankle deep muddy water that would ruin the nice white nylon of the balloon. A family of partially dressed people came outside as we landed in their front yard, still early in the morning.

“Is it alright if we use your driveway?” Cusick asks, amicable. They’re pretty excited to host us and will have a good story for work later. Their kids even got to crawl in the basket and inspect things for themselves as we packed things up to be driven the six or so miles back to Levis Commons.

Oops, too wet to land properly here.
Oops, too wet to land properly here.

Race weekend

The Glass City Balloon Race is partnering with Girls on the Run of NW Ohio this year, with proceeds from the event benefitting local schools and young women throughout the area, providing scholarships and equipment to those in need.

A kind Toledo family lets us land in their driveway.
A kind Toledo family lets us land in their driveway.

“The cool thing is on Friday and Saturday night is the Glow from 9-10pm on Friday and Saturday night. That’s for the community.” The Glow involves the pilots inflating their tethered balloons, and when they turn on the gas, the balloons all glow in the dark like enormous Chinese lanterns. It’s supposed to be gorgeous.

Events really kick off around 1pm today, Tyler says, “And there’s live music starting at 5pm.” It’s safe to say that with restaurants, shopping and hot air balloon fun aplenty, Levis Commons is where you want to be this weekend.

Levis Commons as few get to see it.
Levis Commons as few get to see it.

Here’s the full schedule of events for the weekend:

***May Change Due To Wind and Weather.

Friday, July 14, 2017
Time: 6pm-9pm: Live Music With Mikes With Mics
Time: 7:30pm: Sponsor Flight/Fun Flight
Time: 9pm – 10pm: GLOW

Saturday, July 15, 2017
Time: 6:15am: Competition Flight #1
Time: 1pm-8pm: Helicopter Rides with Intrepid Helicopters ($35/person)
Time: 2pm-4pm: Pilot Meet And Greet At Blue Pacific Grill, Salvatore Capelli e. Estetica Spa & Beauty lounge, Taste of Toledo Gift Baskets & Gifts True REST Perrysburg
Time: 5pm-5:30: BMX Stunt Demo with The Right Direction Youth Development Program
Time: 6pm-9pm: Live Music With Bob Stevens Band
Time: 7:30pm: Competition Flight #2
Time: 9pm – 10pm: GLOW

Sunday, July 16, 2017
Time: 6:15am: Final Competition Flight #3

A beautiful day for flight. Definitely, a recommended experience.
A beautiful day for flight. Definitely, a recommended experience.

If you’re interested in experiencing the thrill of a hot air balloon ride for yourself, contact Balloons Over Toledo at (419) 370-9820 or reach out to Jake Tyler at balloonsovertoledo@gmail.com.