By ROGER SCHNEIDER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
A colorful aerial display that has been painting the sky above the fairgrounds for more than two decades will continue this year.
Hot-air balloonists will gather for the 25th year on the infield near the grandstands to display their balloons in the evening and also race, or more accurately float, across the sky to wherever the wind takes them.
“I have 21 balloons coming,” said Gene Stutsman, who organized the first event 25 years ago. “Eight of them are special shaped balloons.”
Those special balloons are shaped liked animals and cartoon characters. Lifting off will be balloons named Spunky, The Purple People Eater, Coco the Clown, Buzzy The Bee, Gordo The Monkey, Pirate Parrots, Puddy Cat and Tweety Bird.
“We have quite a bit invested in this one so I hope we have some good weather for it,” Stutsman said.
Balloonists will be coming from all across the country. Stutsman said two will be coming from Atlanta, five from Missouri and others from here and there. Participating balloonists will be competing for shares of a $3,000 purse during the weekend.
Twenty-five years for a fair event is a long run and the balloon competitions came about because of Stutsman’s personal interest in ballooning.
“I had just gotten a balloon and Steve Bartow, who was vice president (of the fair) that year, asked me if I would come out that year and bring some balloons and put on a show,” Stutsman said. “We had 10 the first year.”
Asked if he expected to have such a long-term event back then, Stutsman said, “No I didn’t. I am surprised we made it this far.”
As a fair attraction, the balloon glow and weekend flights are something special, he believes.
“It really is kind of special,” Stutsman said. “I know for sure that our fair is the only one that has had a balloon chase ongoing for 25 years. And the State Fair only makes one flight. So, it has been a special plus as an event for the Elkhart County Fair.”
Helping Stutsman organize the event all these years has been his wife Ann. His son Jeremy and committee members Tim Yoder, Steve Hrynewycz and Bob Yeoman also pitch in.
The balloon schedule has four events. On opening night of the fair there will be a flight in the evening and then a “balloon glow” at 10 p.m. where balloons will be tethered and filled so the public can get a close-up look at the unique aerial inventions.
There will also be flights on Saturday morning, Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Stutsman said most balloons are sponsored but there are still a few openings for those wanting to book a ride. A ride will cost $140 and anyone wanting to schedule one should call Stutsman at 533-6110.
Owning a hot air balloon is not for those who have thin wallets. Stutsman said, “Special shapes run $75,000 to $100,000 and regular balloons are up to $30,000 to $40,000 now.”
Interest in ballooning has dipped a little over the years, according to Stutsman.
“The sport has diminished some. Balloons have worn out and people have gotten to the age where they decided to quit flying,” he said. “It’s like everything else, it gets to a high point and then diminishes.”
Now Stutsman operates the only balloon in the Goshen area that is rated to carry passengers, which he still does. He said flights normally last 40 minutes to an hour.