After 4 year hiatus, hot air balloons return to Columbia

Wednesday, August 22, 2007 | 11:00 p.m. CDT; updated 4:36 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — The 2006 World Hot Air Balloon Champion will grace the skies of Columbia this weekend in the first Columbia Balloon Invitational.

John Petrehn, 35, of Leawood, Kan., will be one of 35 pilots representing seven states in the competition. Twenty-four contestants are from Missouri. Local balloonists said they are excited for a hot air balloon competition to return to Columbia. The city’s last competition was the Show-Me State Games in 2003, preceded by the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship from 1995 to 1997.

Petrehn comes from a long line of balloonists. His father, John R. Petrehn, set several world records in the 1980s and was part of the first modern-day attempt at a trip around the world in a hot air balloon. Out of the 11 Petrehn siblings, six fly balloons. Two of the siblings, Maury and Becky, will also attend the invitational.

“Anyone that’s flown hot air balloons around the Midwest is going to know the Petrehns because they are one of the first families that brought around ballooning,” said Fred Schoening, a balloon pilot from Moberly.

The invitational, sanctioned by the Balloon Federation of America, opens for the public Friday evening with a balloon launch and illumination at Corporate Lake off South Hampton Drive. The competition begins at 6:30 a.m. Saturday and continues Sunday morning at the same time. The winner of the competition will gain the most points toward his or her national ranking. Pilots with the most points for the year will qualify for the 2008 U.S. National Competition in Waco, Texas.

Gary Whitby, president of the Heart of Missouri Balloon Club and one of the event’s directors, said that the competition tests navigational skills and the ability to maneuver the balloons at different altitudes. Pilots drop beanbags onto targets at several goals downwind. The pilot who most accurately drops the markers onto the targets wins. The invitational also includes a “pole grab” competition, where balloonists try to capture a prize from atop a pole.

Although the invitational is free, the funding for it was provided by individuals and local businesses who bought sponsorship packages. The profits from these packages will be donated to the Children’s Hospital at MU Health Care and the Children’s Miracle Network.

“We wanted to make it free for people to bring their kids and have a good time,” Whitby said.

Hot air balloons launch in the morning or the evening because the two hours after sunrise and before sunset are the hours of least turbulence, Whitby said. Turbulence, much like with an airplane, is caused by columns of hot air in the atmosphere.

“The whole key to this ballooning situation is one simple word and that’s weather,” Schoening said. “You’ve got to have good weather to have a good ballooning event.”

Vicki Fogue, one of the event’s directors, said that the public can check for weather information during the event.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Columbia pilot Tim Graham. “They’re raising money for a good cause. It’s just good overall.”

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