The great enemies of competitive hot air ballooning are death and power lines. Both hovered close at the National Balloon Classic, an annual nine-day competition that’s been held in Indianola, Iowa, since 1989.
The Classic is the pinnacle of ballooning culture, bringing some of the world’s best balloon pilots to a field 17 miles south of Des Moines for a friendly contest where shared history matters more than prestige. For four sweltering days that started before the sun rose and ended with just enough time to grab six hours of sleep, I asked these pilots all the stupid questions: How does a balloon fly? (Accumulated heat from its propane fuel system keeps it airborne.) Is it a race? (No, this competition isn’t.) What do you think about this tweet? (“Can I stop the balloon? I mean, that’s a very relative term.”)
Flying a hot air balloon requires a set of very specific weather conditions that are inherently uncontrollable. Winds must be strong enough to propel the balloon but not so strong that they become dangerous—something pilots measure by releasing a smaller helium balloon into the sky and simply watching what it does. No inclement precipitation is allowed, and it can’t be too hot either, or pilots risk damaging their balloon’s fabric since even more heat is required to launch.
Once the balloon is aloft, it remains at the mercy of invisible air currents. Pilots can lower or raise their balloons by adjusting their burners, but there’s no steering mechanism and no way to speed up or slow down. The way a hot air balloon touches down renders the phrase “crash landing” a little redundant, as the basket inevitably makes bumpy contact with the ground before skidding to a stop.
In 2022, getting into the sport of ballooning requires a set of very specific conditions, too: some combination of family ties, specialized licenses, the ability to spend an entire summer on the road traveling to competitions, tens of thousands of dollars for a recreational aircraft, and the drive to master a skill tempered by the humility needed to surrender to the quirks and whims of nature. If everything aligns, pilots get the chance to climb to the top of the field in a strange, obscure sport and the opportunity to feel the sensation of flight in a way that most people can only ever dream about.
Cameron Wall is a confident 24-year-old who loves answering questions with a strong affirmative, like, “Absolutely!” or, “One hundred percent,” almost as much as he loves hot air ballooning. When he’s not tearing through competition season, Wall is a commercial hot air balloon pilot. His gig at the moment is ferrying tourists over Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. He calls his balloon, a black and yellow racer, “The Missile.” He has no fixed address.
“If people know me, they know the only thing I care about in life is flying balloons. I’ve told girlfriends I’ll always put ballooning first, and they don’t believe me,” Wall told me. “My job is ballooning. My hobby is ballooning. When I was living in Vegas, I'd go play tennis once a week with someone who had no affiliation with ballooning. But other than that, I don’t spend time with anyone outside of ballooning. At least, not on purpose.”
“I don’t spend time with anyone outside of ballooning. At least, not on purpose.” —Cameron Wall
That doesn’t mean Wall is antisocial, though. At the Classic, he knows almost every other pilot. Occasionally, as he jokes with one of his peers at a rapid clip, he catches my eye and smiles conspiratorially to let me know he’s stumbled on something or someone he thinks will make “good content.”
It takes more than just one charismatic dude in a baseball cap to fly a hot air balloon, and being part of a pilot’s competition crew is as involved as flying itself. At the Classic, each pilot’s crew is made up of friends, family members, and a smattering of Indianola locals who volunteer to help their pilot transport, launch, and land a given balloon. Wall is flying with an unusually small crew of one: Chloe Reeder, 19, a blond Michigan native whose boyfriend, brother, and father are all hot air balloon pilots. With a tattoo of her dad’s old balloon on her wrist, Reeder is intimately familiar with the world of ballooning, and she can sling around equipment that probably weighs more than she does.
Throughout the course of the week, she also aims near-constant, sibling-level digs at Wall—like when she turns from the driver’s seat of his pickup truck to make fun of the dog-eager way Wall leaps out and runs to talk to an Indianola local. “I feel like he could have waited,” she tells me, deadpan. “But, oh well, getting his steps in.”
The Classic isn’t the country’s most serious hot air balloon competition—that title goes to the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship, which sends its winners to the world championship. This is a more amicable contest. Weather permitting, the Classic sets its competing pilots up to fly twice a day: a morning flight after a 6 a.m. briefing and an “afternoon” flight, which is really more of an evening thing, after another briefing at 6 p.m. The day’s flights are scored separately, and only a contestant’s morning total contributes to their overall standing in the Classic. The tone of each flight briefing varies accordingly: Mornings are serious and efficient, and afternoons are jokey and relaxed.
During both, pilots are given a series of tasks to complete for points that are part geocaching, part cornhole, and part miracle of flight. In the mornings, pilots must throw or drop sand-filled nylon projectiles called “baggies” on designated targets, like the center of a giant taped-off X in the middle of the balloon field or into an empty canal, within a certain span of time. Afternoons are more of a toss-up, and there tends to be cash on the line—Wall won $500 one afternoon flight for bashing down an outhouse with the basket of his balloon in front of a crowd of onlookers, here to see balloons.
There isn’t an official uniform, but there is a de facto one. Men wear Oakleys with iridescent lenses, baseball caps, and cargo shorts. Women wear athletic shorts or leggings with sneakers that might get swapped out for rain boots in the morning. Almost everyone completes their outfits with T-shirts from National Balloon Classics of yore or other competitions in mid-sized cities in the American heartland: Angola and Battle Creek and Shreveport and Longview and Boise. (The slogans that decorate the shirts are creatively banal: “Up Up and Amaze!” or “Sky’s the Limit!” or “It’s LegendAIRy!”) Wall gets ribbed by another pilot for the highfalutin way he’s dressed, in mustard cargo shorts, a Lululemon baseball cap, and a plain maroon V-neck, like he’s better than a graphic tee. “I haven’t done laundry,” he fires back in defense. “These are my fancy clothes!”
One pilot, Canna Walter, and her crew truly deviate from the whole T-shirt, legging, baseball cap outfit: They’re a gaggle of queer women and non-binary people sporting undercuts, with some of the only facial piercings at the competition, and a literal rainbow of jumpsuits with each member’s nom-de-balloon and pronouns embroidered onto an iron-on patch. A few of the crew members have matching tattoos with the team’s motto in thin block letters: I WANNA GO UP. They met as members of the same Seattle-based roller derby league and leaped at the chance to crew for Walter, an Indianola native flying her late father’s vintage balloon, the rainbow HAPPYANUNOIT. “I had a concept of the fact that you could do a hot air balloon ride, but I had no idea that people did it as a competition,” says crew member Kate Page, aka Rage.
“I had a concept of the fact that you could do a hot air balloon ride, but I had no idea that people did it as a competition.” —Kate “Rage” Page
More than anything, hot air balloon pilots and their crew members need to be excited by the prospect of floating in a quasi-controllable basket thousands of feet in the air—a quality that most people do not possess. On my first afternoon at the Classic, Wall, Reeder, and I wander through the balloon field as 30-odd pilots inflate their balloons for the benefit of the crowd on the other side of a fence that separates pilots from spectators. Burners flare with an unmistakable whoosh, and crew members strain to hold envelopes—the word for the balloon part of a hot air balloon—open or dig their heels into the grass and tug against a swelling balloon in order to keep it upright. Soon, all of the balloons are erect and bobbing slightly in the breeze, while pilots and crew members mill around and chat beneath them, using their weight to keep their baskets grounded.
Walking through this kaleidoscope of metallics and neons and jewel tones and blazing primary colors is a hallucinatory experience. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, shrunken down and open-mouthed in wonder at the gargantuan fauna. Then, the spectacle is over almost as quickly as it started—balloons begin to deflate, and once they hit the ground, crew members quickly bunch them up and pack them back into fabric carrying cases roughly the size of a bass drum. The wind is coming, grounding flights for the rest of the day, and the pilots are tired and antsy to get home and rest up for the next morning.
Just after 6:30 a.m., Wall, Reeder, and I find our launch site in a yard with a hand-painted sign reading, “BALLOONS WELCOME” in big, red letters. An older man with a Santa Claus beard who’s grinning like it’s Christmas waves us into a downward-sloping field behind his house—he’s one of the Indianola locals eager to get in on the excitement of the Classic by lending out his property. Then, the rush to launch begins.
Reeder parks the truck and jumps out of the front seat as two, then three, then five other balloons begin to inflate next to us. She activates the mechanical liftgate on the back of Wall’s truck and tugs the bag holding the balloon’s envelope onto it, lowering it to the ground. Wall gets the wicker basket onto the field and tips it on its side to connect it to the various clips and cables attached to the unfurled envelope.
As Reeder holds the balloon’s parachute valve taut with a rope so air can collect inside of the envelope, Wall shows me how to hold the balloon open for the industrial fan that takes care of the initial inflation. As the balloon fills with air, its inside looks cavernous—bigger than a New York studio apartment. When the balloon is fat and happy, Wall starts to flare the burners to get The Missile upright, heating the trapped air and producing that miracle: liftoff. Suddenly, Wall is floating a few yards in the air, tethered to his truck by a length of rope.
At 6:55 a.m., Wall unclips himself and lets the tether fall to the ground, and then he’s climbing into the sky. The freshly risen sun illuminates the half-dozen balloons soundlessly ascending. The grass is wet and squeaky underneath our shoes as we trot back to the pickup truck. Reeder starts the engine so we can be there when he lands.
Humanity first punctured the boundary between ground and sky with a hot air balloon. The balloon with human passengers glided from Paris to a vineyard around 5 miles away from the city in November 1783, a solid 120 years before the first manned airplane putzed around in the sand dunes of North Carolina. (“I tried flying planes, and it was fucking boring,” Wall told me. “It was like driving a bus in the sky. No challenge.”) In 1793, George Washington observed the first hot air balloon flight in the newborn United States, and within the next century, military hot air balloons floated over Civil War battlefields. Hard-bodied balloons, better known as zeppelins, were briefly in vogue as a mode of luxury air travel before the 1937 Hindenburg disaster tanked their image.
According to the National Balloon Museum, ballooning as a sport began in the United States in 1960, when a man named Ed Yost developed the propane burners that make sustained balloon flight possible. The first U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship was held three years later, and Indianola—home to the aforementioned Balloon Museum since the early 70s—played host to Nationals for decades before it hit the road and was replaced by the National Balloon Classic.
“I tried flying planes, and it was fucking boring. It was like driving a bus in the sky. No challenge.” —Cameron Wall
These days, there’s a feeling that competitive hot air ballooning is on the downswing. Sponsorships from big, sexy brands like Playboy and Kool Cigarettes—which sponsored a series of hot air balloon races in the 80s, despite the fact that it is extremely dangerous to smoke near propane-fueled hot air balloons—have long since dried up. Wall blames the sport’s downturn in popularity on a problem plaguing the broader realm of aviation: a pilot shortage that stems from the declining number of Air Force veterans who actually know how to fly an aircraft. But that’s hardly the only reason nobody wants to fly a hot air balloon anymore. It’s an expensive hobby that resists monetization—Wall says the first used hot air balloon he ever purchased cost him around $40,000, and he thinks he netted around $6,000 from this year’s entire competition season. (Do not even ask how much everyone spends a year on helium.)
Bill Bussey is an octogenarian pilot flying in the Classic who funds and runs his own balloon competition, the Great Texas Balloon Race. “I’ve been around ballooning for 47 years,” he tells me, leaning against the open door of his car in the Classic parking lot. The morning flight is over, and he has a koozie in hand at 10 a.m., the electric blue of a Bud Light can just visible. “In 1986, there were basically 5,000 members of the Hot Air Competition Division,” he says in a musical Texas twang. “Today, there are only about 1,400. What’s happening to our sport? The competition scares the average pilot: cost of balloon, cost of travel. And older guys with white hair have not heeded the need to bring young folks into [ballooning]. Those are the reasons the sport is dying.”
Wall is one of a handful of young people seriously invested in competitive hot air ballooning—and that’s thanks largely to Bussey’s influence. In 2019, Bussey created a “Young Guns” division as part of his balloon competition, where licensed pilots under age 29 with enough flight time under their belt can get a taste of the sport. “These kids have become superior pilots,” Bussey grins. “They're not challenged with the electronics, like older guys like me, so they use them to do extremely well in flight. They kick my butt in competition. That's my wish. I don't like it, but it's my wish. Plus, they've created a bond amongst themselves that I think is fantastic.”
The Classic’s roster, like any other U.S.-based hot air balloon competition, features competing cousins, father-son and father-daughter face-offs, siblings flying against each other—according to Wall, he’s the anomaly. His dad is a dentist, and his mom is a broadcast journalist who bakes him banana bread before competitions so he’ll have something to eat on long flights. “I’m sure by now you’ve heard a lot of, ‘My dad’s balloon…’” Wall says with a sly smile on the third day of the Classic, and he’s right. Canna Walter, flying HAPPYANUNOIT with her roller derby teammates, crewed for her father from age 10 onward. Duncan Hernandez, one of Bussey’s Young Guns, grew up watching his grandfather pilot hot air balloons. Blake Aldridge, a recent Texas A&M graduate who’s a close friend of Wall, is a slight exception. His mom isn’t a pilot, but she’s crewed for Bussey for decades, packing and unpacking his balloon and serving as his driver and navigator. Aldridge says that experience makes her extra paranoid when her son is in the air: “She’s seen some shit. So when I’m in the air, I'll be flying to a target, or landing, and I'm trying to talk to my crew, and then I hear—”
“‘Blake! Blake!’” Wall cuts in, pitching his voice up.
“‘THESE POWER LINES ARE—’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, Mom, I’m fine.’” Aldridge finishes the impression. “But it’s a good way to be as a mom, y’know.”
When everything is going right, mass hot air balloon flight is mesmerizing. During competition at the Classic, the balloons form into an almost orderly line that stretches across the horizon as they follow each other towards their targets. Reeder and Wall call it “the Indianola train.” The effect against a clear blue sky is surreal, otherworldly, inhuman—like a procession of Biblically accurate angels drifting to pick up passengers to ferry them up beyond the clouds.
Ask any competitive hot air balloon pilot and they’ll tell you that it’s a huge misconception that ballooning is actively dangerous. Statistically, they’re right—I was much, much more likely to die in a plane crash on the way to Iowa, or in a car wreck on the drive from Des Moines to Indianola, than in a balloon accident. But, illogical as it might be, that’s not how it feels. Like a balloon flight, a balloon crash is a spectacle.
The 2022 National Balloon Classic was the site of multiple accidents. One fruit-shaped “show” balloon, designed as an ad for the Cosmic Crisp apple, caught fire on one of its own burners, causing enough damage that its pilot had to leave the Classic to repair it. More seriously, two different balloons hit power lines mid-flight. The first crash put three people—a pilot and two passengers—in the hospital with third-degree burns when their wicker passenger basket made contact with the wires.
Reeder and I have a front-row seat to the next accident. As we’re tracking Wall’s progress through the sky on Thursday morning, a balloon flying low en route to the morning’s final target hits a power line with its envelope. As the balloon’s basket bumps onto the ground, the envelope’s orange and yellow fabric sparks on contact with the live wires. Those sparks eat away at the nylon, melting it into nothing. We watch the pilot, Steve Jones, climb out of his basket and into the sympathetic arms of his crew members as the balloon deflates to half its size and slumps over the active lines, collapsing from the inside like a rotting jack o’lantern. Within minutes, a fire truck and a sheriff’s department cruiser are at the scene, and a gaggle of onlookers park their cars to gawk.
After the morning flights have all ended, at the only restaurant in Indianola serving hot breakfast, a group of pilots swap footage of the accident. They huddle around one pilot’s iPhone as he replays a clip captured on his GoPro, wide-eyed and wincing as the balloon hits the wires. Laurie Anderson, the wife and crew member of pilot Allen Anderson, passes her phone around so everyone can flip through photos that Indianola locals posted on Facebook. “If you hit, that’s the talk of the town forever after that,” Wall says. “Even years after, people are gonna be like, ‘Oh, that’s the guy who hit the lines.’” Jones, the balloon’s pilot, does not attend the remainder of the competition.
A few of the pilots and crew members, including Wall, say they’re upset I witnessed the crash. Their fear: Negative press about balloon accidents and subsequent injuries could lead overzealous legislators to regulate the sport into oblivion. I’m sympathetic. Why would I know more about the risks involved with ballooning than these genuinely spooked pilots? So, even after seeing Jones’s balloon on fire, I go up in the sky later that same day.
It’s silent 2,000 feet above the ground. On the Thursday afternoon flight, Wall and I shot straight up into the sky to catch a promising current. From our altitude, other balloons appear coin-sized, and the trees on the ground are flecks of leftover kale at the bottom of a salad bowl, too small to bother scooping up. My feet tingle with the body knowledge that the only thing between me and the open sky is a layer of wicker. I grip the sides of The Missile’s basket like I’m on a ship bucking and rolling its way through an angry sea when, in retrospect, we are actually gliding, frictionless, through the air.
“If you take your shoes off, you can really feel it,” Wall says.
I do not do that. I am violently afraid.
Still, I can appreciate the view: 360 degrees of verdant Iowa farmland, hazy from the heat and tinted gold by the setting sun. It’s the stuff of postcards and gubernatorial campaign ads. I have to look at the land to avoid looking straight ahead into the boundless blue or, God forbid, up—past the balloon’s burners into the black and yellow envelope that looks so, so much smaller in the air than it did on the ground. My only solace in this moment, besides a stunning new perspective on the American landscape, is that I get to spit over the side of the balloon to check out which direction the wind is going in.
“If you take your shoes off, you can really feel it.” —Cameron Wall
Unfortunately for Wall, it becomes clear pretty quickly that we’re not going to hit the intended target, a large X next to the concession stands at the Classic. His loss is my gain: We get to go lower to the ground. After that happens, the sensation of flight shifts from horrifying to, actually, very nice. My heart rate lowers and I get marginally less sweaty. Wall is relaxed at the helm of the balloon. He waves at the crowd of Classic attendees as we fly over them. A voice makes a booming announcement that he is Cameron Wall, contestant number 114, flying The Missile.
“There was a huge crowd here when I knocked over the outhouse,” he says, glowing. “It was fucking awesome.”
As the flight progresses and the sun dips, I can see why Wall can do this for a living. He repeatedly reminds me that every bump and jostle is normal. He can tell that I need to hear it (although there is a repetitive jangling noise that I notice around ten minutes into our flight that I’m too paranoid to ask about). We sweep low over a corn field and let the stalks bump against the basket. We climb higher and peer down at a carpet of trees.
When we find a place to land, we’ve been in the air for around 40 minutes and we’re the last balloon in the sky. We see a lone house with a big back field and a few agitated dogs barking up at us from the driveway. Wall calls down to a woman with her arms around a blond child: “Can we land here?”
“Yeah, just don’t hit my cows,” she calls back.
Less than a minute later, I’m crouched a little dramatically beneath the rim of the basket, braced in a corner per Wall’s instructions, when it bumps into the ground, skids, then tips over. On impact, something splashes onto my arm that I choose to think of as mud.
By the time the balloon is disassembled, it’s fully dark, and we’re all starving. At the Classic grounds, we get turned away from the only open restaurant in Indianola five minutes before it closes—9:55 p.m. on a Thursday—which is probably for the best. Tomorrow is another early morning and it’s way past everyone’s bedtime.
On Friday afternoon, Wall is running late—he and Walter took their time picking out a launch site, joking around on a dirt road and demonstrating how to properly pee out of a hot air balloon, before landing on this available patch of backyard. The sun has almost set by the time he figures out something is wrong. “There’s a tear in the balloon,” he calls to Reeder, resigned. “We’re not going to fly.”
The other balloons float away one by one until The Missile is the last vehicle in the field. We’re not alone, though. Two couples and their four children have gathered to watch the balloons launch. Even though Wall won’t compete tonight, he still has a show to put on.
“OK guys,” he says in a warm and solicitous voice. “I’m going to need your help. Do you think you can do that?” He gives the children careful instructions: how to gather the fabric of the envelope and where they need to put their body weight to stuff the balloon back into its carrying bag. It’s the rural Iowa elementary schooler’s MegaMillions Jackpot. Everyone gets to ride up and down the lift on the back of the pickup truck. Wall picks them up one at a time and sets them on the rim of his basket—the smaller girls stand on his computer stand, and the bigger, rowdier boys steady themselves against the balloon’s frame. Each kid gets a chance to ignite the balloon’s burners and send a jet of flame roaring into the deep blue twilight sky while the onlookers giggle and shriek.
“Thank you for being so sweet to my babies,” one mother tells him.
A few weeks later, I find out that Wall placed 8th at the final competition of the season, the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship. It’s a score that would typically be high enough to send him to Slovenia for the world championship, if not for the interruption of COVID-19. “My first year of Nationals I was dead last. My second year I was 21st, and this year 8th,” he texted me, among other things, the day after the competition wrapped. “I’m progressing. All my practice and work the rest of the year is paying off.” Obviously, he piloted a commercial flight in Wyoming the day after competition season ended: “A day without flying is a day wasted.”
Katie Way is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.