Story and photo by Lori Gottula
On this past humid but temperate Saturday night, before a rain shower soaked everyone and everything at the Falls City Airport, the cars started coming. The people had been promised something amazing, so for the next three hours, they kept coming. By the time the rain had cleared, and volunteers had admitted everyone, nearly 6000 people from 27 states had passed through the gates. They were there to see the first Hot Air Balloon Festival since 1995.
The brainchild of chamber director, Amber Holle, the festival was the talk of southeast Nebraska for months. But nobody expected the massive turn-out that backed traffic up for two miles—from the airport clear back to Harlan Street—and filled every inch of grass and concrete behind the hangar at Brenner Field.
“The crowd was overwhelming,” Holle said. “The responses on Facebook indicated that 1500 people were coming. Just to be on the safe side, we planned for twice that. But then 6000 people showed up.”
The chamber had purchased 3000 wristbands, which were only given to adults 21-and-over. The volunteers ran out of those by 6:30 p.m. Add to that total the teenagers and children, and 6000 is probably a conservative estimate.
Aside from the downpour in the early evening, parking appeared to be the biggest issue.
But what seemed like a parking problem to some people meant a successful event to others. Anxious visitors waited in line for 30 minutes just to get onto airport property. Some parked a mile away, then walked. Others parked at the high school lot, then jumped on a trolley or climbed on a bus. And the bus wasn’t even part of the initial plan.
“When I drove past the high school, I saw people lined up from the entry clear back to Jug Brown Stadium,” volunteer Mitch Merz said. “So I went home and got my bus.”
That kind of community spirit was evident throughout the evening. Falls Cityans who paid to get in, and had planned to attend the event with their friends or families, jumped in to help any way that they could.
Kelly Bletscher, whose company, Schilling Bridge Winery, served food and beverages at its vendor booth, said that she had a full staff, but had accepted help from 10 volunteers.
“People just kept saying, ‘what can we do?’,” Kelly said. “So we accepted their help just so we could keep up. We served food to at least 700 people. And drinks? I couldn’t begin to count. It was unbelievable!”
The vendors weren’t the only people affected either. Runza restaurant owner Gina Scheitel said that all of the restaurants in town were very busy.
“It was super crazy,” she said.
Back at the airport, Chris Shimmel of Rockport, who sold funnel cakes while people waited for the balloons to launch, had his biggest night ever, too.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “Ever. We started frying funnel cakes the minute the gates opened, and we never stopped, not even for a minute. It was definitely my biggest event.”
Big was the name of the game that night. And most of the bigs were positive. But along with the big crowds came one big disappointment. When the 7 p.m. launch time came, the balloonists decided to postpone it to 7:30, or maybe not fly at all. The wind and rainy conditions earlier in the evening had created less-than-ideal launching and landing situations.
According to balloonist Mike Fenster of Omaha, the Federal Aviation Administration governs the conditions in which balloonists can launch and land. Firstly, the wind velocity must be less than eight-to-ten miles per hour. Even so, the wind wasn’t the biggest factor in the decision to postpone.
“The biggest factors were the wind direction, and the rain that hit the area earlier in the evening,” the nationally-ranked, competitive balloonist said. “The wind was blowing eastward, so we knew that our balloons would fly toward Rulo and the Missouri River. In addition, it rained earlier in the evening, which created rough, wet, and muddy landing areas. Some of the balloonists decided not to risk it.”
“Taking off is optional,” said balloonist Tim Cloyd of Runnells, IA. “But landing is mandatory.”
Fenster agreed. “A large balloon stands six stories high and weighs three tons when filled,” he said. “Safety has to come first.”
By 7:30 p.m., the wind direction had changed slightly so two of the balloonists decided to launch. The first was Fenster whose Remax balloon was sponsored by SunMart. Manager Angie Phroper got to ride.
“It was indescribable,” Angie said, after her first ballooning experience. “You can’t even tell that you’re moving because you’re just floating. And everything feels like you’re at peace with the world.”
The second balloon that launched was called Emerald City Express, owned and operated by Michael Jones of Omaha. The Gottula family sponsored the balloon, with a banner that read, “For Dad.”
On a personal note, that sign was for my dad, who rode with me in a balloon in 1995,
Falls City’s last hot air balloon show. When we were in the air, he said to me, “This is the closest
I’ll get to heaven until the day I die.” He passed away three years later, at age 63. A hot air
balloon is engraved on his headstone.
At the show Saturday night, I rode in the Emerald City balloon with my Mom, Judy
Kimball of Auburn. She is 79 years old. We nearly lost her four years ago to a brain aneurysm
rupture. The fact that she was able to climb into a hot air balloon was a miracle.
“The ride was a tribute to my husband,” Mom said, afterward. “Lori and I felt peace and
joy as we floated through the air. We definitely felt his presence.”
Boy, did we ever. It was like drifting on angels’ wings.
After those two launches, the rest of the balloonists decided not to take off. The
Oxymoron band played while the remaining ones participated in a “balloon glow.” They tethered
their balloons, then lit them up. In the dark, the glowing balloons were as gorgeous as a Nebraska
sunset. The glow was a huge hit.
The evening ended around 10 p.m.
There was no rest for the balloonists and crews, however. They were back at the
airport by 5:30 a.m., for a 7:00 launch. That morning, all of them flew. The rest of the balloons
were sponsored by Ace Hardware, Rieschick Drilling Company, Froeschl Floors, Frontier Bank,
and Bierman Farms.
There were roughly 200 people in attendance.
Many of them stuck around for the fly-in breakfast, sponsored by the Falls City Area
Jaycees. According to member Jenna Frederick, the club served up more than 200 meals
comprised of pancakes, sausage, and milk or orange juice.
Mayor Shawna Bindle attended with her family. She marveled at the enormity of the
“Build it, and they will come,” she said. “We built it, and they came.”
Throughout the morning, eight pilots flew in for breakfast, most of them from around the
area—Auburn, Lincoln, Falls City. One had even come in the previous day from Oklahoma.
According to Brad Ahern, who serves as a shop mechanic at the airport, the highlight of
the breakfast was the spontaneous generosity of five of the pilots. Ben Steffens, Dave Mullins,
Chad Mullins, Jerry Gifford, and Doug Ettelman all gave their time to provide 22 free airplane
rides. Anyone who signed up got to go.
“I feel like, after this weekend, all generations (young and old) can now see the impact
that their hometown airport can make on the community and surrounding areas,” Ahern said. “A
lot of business, pleasure, and dreams about that big blue sky can be easy to obtain with the gem
of an airport that we have.”
It’s no doubt that everyone who attended Falls City’s Hot Air Balloon Show will agree.
Falls City has a gem of an airport. And we also have a gem of a community.
Mitch Bletscher of Schilling Bridge summed it up best.
“No matter what we needed Saturday night, people stepped up to help,” he said. “When
we all come together, we can do some amazing things.”
Amazing was the main word used this weekend. And that is a testament to Amber Holle,
and everyone from this town who stepped in, and stepped up. Truly amazing.