Hot air balloons from north of the border will be joining the local ballooning fun this August when pilots from the Canadian Balloon Association stage their national competition in conjunction with the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships.
Ohio-based Maury Sullivan, event director for the US/Canadian Nationals, said his group was approached by the Canadian Balloon Association about a joint event.
“They have a hard time finding the venues and infrastructure necessary to have their national championship,” Sullivan said. “Consequently, they haven’t been able to host one for the past three years in Canada.”
The request then went to the Balloon Federation of America board to see if the Canadian championship could be added to the competition already in place.
“Our conclusion was that adding an international element to the event is exciting for any local community,” Sullivan said. “By opening up a certain amount of international participation gives their competitive pilots a feel for the competition here in the U.S. The cultural exchange is another big plus.”
For the 2020 championship event, pilots from Canada, Japan and Netherlands are expected. While details haven’t been finalized, the current world champion, from England, might be able to attend.
“Western Nebraska is wide open space and that’s what all balloon pilots like,” Sullivan said. “The pilots will have to deal with some wind, but they’re looking forward to coming.”
The Canadian pilots will compete alongside the U.S. pilots, although they will be scored separately. The top three pilots for each country will be awarded first, second and third. The six finalists will also qualify for the World Championship, scheduled for September 2021 in Murska Soboto, Slovenia.
“I think the Canadian balloon pilots are excited about having a national competition championship event again,” said Colleen Johnson, executive director of the Old West Balloon Fest. “The Canadian ballooning industry is strong, but not as large as in the U.S.”
About 50 competition balloon pilots are expected to start arriving in the valley on Aug. 8 for a weekend of practice. The official U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship runs Aug. 10-15 with target locations announced each morning when weather conditions are determined.
Another 30-40 pilots will join them for the Old West Balloon Fest, scheduled for Aug. 14-15. They won’t be in the competition division but will go aloft at sunrise both mornings from the old Mitchell airport for a sail around the community.
Two night glows are also scheduled for the public to attend. The WNCC night glow is the evening of Aug. 12 and will feature 25 competition balloons and some balloons with new, special shapes.
The KNEB Night Glow is the evening of Aug. 15 in the grasslands area at Five Rocks Amphitheater in Gering. Some 80 balloons, with both competition and Balloon Fest pilots, will be featured that night.
“We’re excited about welcoming some new competition pilots, their families and crews to the area,” Johnson said. “I think they’ll enjoy this beautiful area of our state.”