Hot Air Balloon Festival

Balloons are inflated Aug. 24 at the SOAR NWA hot air balloon festival.

Just after sunset, 11 brightly colored hot air balloons dotted the runway of Drake Field Airport, where more than 10,000 attendees gathered to watch the takeoff while enjoying live music and carnival-style foods. 

The balloons could not take flight in the morning because of storms, which affected the initial turnout, said Kelly Sampson, the development director of Open Avenues.

At SOAR NWA, Northwest Arkansas’s first hot air balloon festival, attendees took rides in tethered hot air balloons and helicopters and enjoyed live entertainment, including circus stilt walkers. 

Tessa Miner, a festival attendee who spent most of her evening at the children’s attractions, thinks it is great that “they’re able to include so many cool things into one event,” she said.  

The festival raised $150,000 for the nonprofit organization Open Avenues.

Open Avenues strives to help adults with disabilities such as vision or hearing impairments, autism spectrum disorder, or any other mental and physical disabilities find more career opportunities by offering a career training center and assistance with finding jobs in the community, said Brenda Neal, executive director of Open Avenues. 

After realizing Open Avenues had put on the same fundraiser for the last 21 years, Neal and other event directors decided that SOAR NWA would serve as a unique event that would support their organization, as well as help the community, she said.

Three of the pilots at the festival, Michael Celentano, Herb Heriford and Jim Bolte, were each very excited about the event and its cause. 

Bolte proposed to his wife in front of a hot air balloon, rekindling his love for taking flight, he said.   

“I do it because I love that thing lying on the ground there,” Bolte said as he pointed to the deflated balloon on the concrete in front of him. 

Celentano, who has been piloting balloons since 1999, shares the same passion. He encourages everyone to talk to a pilot if they get the chance and consider getting involved in the hot air balloon business.

“Us pilots are always very friendly, always have champagne, and always need a crew,” he said. 

Celentano added that while there is a science behind flying, there is an artistic side to it as well. “It’s a whimsical science,” he said. 

Heriford shared his love for flying, detailing the first time he was a part of a balloon crew with his wife 25 years ago. He said that a friend asked if they would like to “chase a balloon,” meaning they followed the balloon in their car to retrieve the equipment after it landed. After their first experience, they decided to buy one of their own, which eventually developed into the hobby they share.

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