Last Year's Pilots
We constantly look to add new balloons all the way up to our event date. Our goal is to provide our guests with the best show we can! 2024 pilots will be added once they confirm.
Balloon Meister - Mischief
Skip Durham, aka “The Skipper,” and Toni Durham, aka “the Crew Chief,” met in the summer of 2009. When Skip told her that he owned a hot air balloon, Toni thought, either he really owns one or that’s the greatest pickup line I’ve ever heard.
Toni said, “I tell people, I fell in love with the balloon, I fell in love with ballooning, and you have to have a pilot, right? So, Skip was part of the package deal.”
The couple married in 2011, and in 2012, they founded their company, Bluff City Balloons, LLC. Since then, they’ve had all sorts of adventures from taking skydivers two miles into the sky and watching them jump out of the basket, to accidentally landing—twice—on the estate of actor Steven Seagal. The balloon they are bringing to the festival is one of only six in the country specially outfitted for people with special needs including people with wheelchairs.
Brian Dial leapt from the plane into the open air, parachute on his back, thousands of feet between him and the ground. The wind whipped past his ears, and the Earth seemed to charge towards him. This was Brian Dial’s old hobby—skydiving. His new hobby also involves the sky but in a much more relaxing—and less terrifying—way.
As a teenager, Brian Dial helped crew hot air balloons, but it wasn’t until he was 45, eight years ago, that he decided to pursue his pilot’s certificate. He bought his balloon, Bandit, which had been used by a previous owner to set the world record for highest altitude reached by a female balloonist for that category of balloon—32,000 feet!
Brian said, “Ballooning is a lot different than other forms of aviation because it’s so quiet and slow-moving. You can drift at treetops and see deer and animals running around, or you can go to a much higher altitude and see long distances, kind of get a panoramic view. But what I really like about it is you have time to look and study and find things, whereas in an airplane or even a helicopter, you’re usually moving really fast and you just catch glimpses of things.”
Brian loves to take his family out flying, including his wife, Beth, and their children—Brady (who is also Brian’s crew chief), Abbi, Savanna and Shianna—as well as his sisters and their families. Brian said, “That’s one of the things I really enjoy about ballooning is it gets the family together.”
Yellow Bird, Tom Cat, Terry The Mouse
It all started when, after driving racecars for 10 years, John Cavin was looking for an inexpensive way to get the same thrill. That’s when, in 1979, he come upon Hot Air Balloon racing. It was an adventure from the beginning and John has been flying ever since.
In 1996, John became the owner of one of the most unusual special shape Hot Air Balloons on the planet. After talking with the Shep Wooley, the recording artist that wrote and sang the 1958 hit song, “The Flying Purple People Eater” John knew he a GREAT name for his unique, eye-catching balloon.
In 2012 John acquired Spunky the skunk special shaped hot air balloon. John had some added inspiration when coming up with this look alike balloon’s name. John was visiting his grandkids one Christmas and asked them to help him name spunk.
Then in 2015 Yellow Bird and Puddy Cat became part of John’s Air Force of Special Shapes Hot Air balloon Team. John now hires pilots to help him fly all four balloons and he also hired his grammar school friend Tweetie Whitfield to help him drive across country.
Fred Poole soared above the Leon International Balloon Festival in Mexico, five black limousines tailing him from the ground. This flight, he was with the wife of a Mexican governor, and the limousines were the chase crew, the people who would pick them up at the end of the flight.
Fred was looking for a place to land, but the balloon had drifted over a local zoo. He asked his passenger if it was okay for them to land there.
She laughed and said, “Yeah, I’m on the board of directors. I think it’s okay.”
The balloon set down in the safari exhibit, inside one of the enclosures, scattering herds of gazelles and zebras. Eventually, the zoo workers—who must have been surprised to see a hot air balloon landing in their zoo—came to help them out. It’s one of Fred’s favorite memories from his 13 years in ballooning, or as he calls it “the smile business,” that is, the business of making other people happy. It’s why his balloon is called Joy.
I ask him how he got started and he says, “I literally woke up one day and decided I was going to fly hot air balloons.” Before this, he piloted planes and did skydiving. One day, he heard about a balloon festival near his home in Mississippi and became interested. He reached out to the festival and found an instructor.
“The rest is history,” said Fred. “It’s an adventure every time you fly.”
Mike Wahl releases the small helium balloon and watches carefully as it twists and turns in the air currents. He needs to know what direction the wind is blowing at all different altitudes. The information is critical if he’s going to win the balloon rally.
Mike boards his hot air balloon with his crew member and fires his burners, causing it to rise off the ground. Their target is a tall pole in the far distance with a key on the top. The competing balloonists will go one at a time and whoever grabs the key wins the event and gets one step closer to the rally’s $10,000 prize.
Navigating a hot air balloon is not easy. There’s no way to directly control where it is going as the balloon will always travel in the same direction as the wind. Fortunately, the wind is often blowing in different directions at different altitudes, so pilots can raise and lower the balloon to reach air currents moving in the direction they want. This is why Mike released the balloon earlier. Navigating this way takes experience, intuition, and some luck.
Eventually, Mike and his crew member reach the pole, but precision flying in a balloon is difficult, and they have trouble getting low enough to grab the key. Fortunately, there’s another option. Each balloonist in the rally was given a numbered bean bag to throw at the X at the base of the pole. The bags that land are scored from the pole at the X outward, with the closest three winning descending cash prizes.
Unable to reach the key, Mike and his crew member look for the bean bag… only to realize that they’ve somehow left it behind, meaning they have no way to win the competition. Panicking, they begin throwing random objects overboard instead—gloves, bags, whatever is loose in the basket. Finally, the wind carries them away from the pole and they have to land.
At the end of the competition, when all the results have been measured, the judges return with a handful of bean bags dropped by other pilots… and a pile of random objects from Mike’s balloon.
“Here’s all the stuff you dumped,” the judge says.
Mike asks if their creative solution still counts, and the judges inform him that he has won second place. Over the years, Mike would go on to win countless other rallies but never in quite so unique a way as this.
Tom Steinbock has loved balloons ever since he was seven years old. At that age, his next-door neighbor hired someone to fly the very first Kentucky Derby Balloon Race, and Tom got involved with chasing and helping crew the balloons.
“I fell in love with it when I was really young, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Tom said.
This year was the 50th anniversary of the race, and Tom has been involved every single year, with the sole exception of 1982 when he was building a house. But Tom didn’t feel too left out that year, because the finish line for the race just so happened to be his front yard!
In 2016, he completed a childhood dream by winning the Kentucky Derby Balloon Race.
“That’s got to be one of my top favorite memories of all time,” Tom said. “I was just at the right place at the right time when I won.” He has been licensed for 37 years and has flown in 40 states and six countries. He has been married to the same woman for 41 years, has two golden retrievers, and lives in Crestwood, Kentucky.