As a 3-year-old, Kasey Schwemmer remembers being awestruck by the sight of 20-some hot-air balloons flying over his Wichita home as part of a Riverfest launch.
That kind of sight has not been seen in Wichita in many years.
In the 1970s and ’80s, there were as many as 17 hot-air balloon pilots in town.
Balloons could be seen fairly often in the rural areas around town at dawn or at sunset, gracefully gliding over pastures as curious cattle gathered to look.
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Those days are largely gone, as the few remaining balloon pilots in Wichita are aging out of the pastime and bringing out the balloons only for special rallies and festivals like Riverfest.
It’s currently impossible to pay for a ride over Wichita, as there are no balloon pilots left in town who are offering rides.
Schwemmer, now 28 and a licensed balloon pilot, thinks Wichita can make a return to its former ballooning heritage.
“Of course I want to try to give back to something that’s given me personally and given my life so much fulfillment and enjoyment,” he said. “Whatever I can do, I kind of feel like I need to do it.”
Wichita ballooning history
Jim Forshee, 71, is among the last of the balloonists in Wichita.
Forshee bought his first hot-air balloon in 1976 for $6,500.
In the 1970s and ’80s, it was easy to find friends in the Wichita ballooning community, he said.
“It was a several-state area worth of friends that you knew, and your kids knew each other,” said Kay Rayburn, a former Wichita balloon pilot. “You cared about each other, and you’d miss each other when it wasn’t ballooning season.”
For a while, there was a club in Wichita dedicated exclusively to ballooning – the High Winders Association.
Balloonists fell in love with other balloonists in Wichita, and their kids spent their childhoods in high-flying baskets or helping to track down the balloons in cars that followed their trajectory.
“There is a rich history (in Wichita),” said Chris Tantillo, who runs Sail Away Adventures in Topeka.
The annual Riverfest balloon launch drew pilots from all around to Sim Park in Riverside.
Balloonists from Wichita combined with Topeka balloonists for an annual rally in Emporia for years, Tantillo said.
“As the number of Wichita pilots kind of declined, over time that fizzled out as well,” Tantillo said. “Unfortunately, that trend in Wichita is going on in most places. We miss having a community of more balloonists down there.”
Unfortunately, that trend in Wichita is going on in most places.
Chris Tantillo, Topeka hot-air balloon pilot
Forshee says there are multiple reasons for ballooning’s waning popularity in Wichita, but the biggest is cost.
Buying a balloon 12 years ago cost Forshee $40,000 – “a big jump,” he said.
Repairs to the balloons, which can be done only by a certified balloon technician, can be costly, as can insurance, Forshee said.
“We’ve got people that really got into ballooning … but it got to a point where some of these people didn’t have that kind of money to be throwing away,” Forshee said. “I think that was the main reason – the expense.”
A ‘graying problem’
Across the country, the sport of ballooning has been on the decline for the past couple of decades.
In Topeka, however, ballooning is on the rise.
“We have a graying problem, nationally speaking, but there are a few places where it’s growing,” Tantillo said. “We’ve had quite a few new pilots (in Topeka) in the last 10 years. Some are in their 20s and 30s, which is very much bucking the trend.”
The Great Plains Balloon Club in Topeka organizes flights and the annual Huff ’n Puff rally.
There are about a dozen active balloonists in the Topeka area, Tantillo said – more than double Wichita’s numbers in a city about a third the size.
“My dad … developed a community of balloon owners,” he said. “He trained these guys, and for the last 25-plus years, I’ve carried on that and trained quite a few pilots.”
Schwemmer, the pilot originally from Wichita, is among the ballooning community in Topeka now.
He recently married the daughter of his longtime ballooning instructor, and the two hope to move back to Wichita and re-energize the ballooning community in town.
“It’s just a matter of finding the right people coming into it at the right time in their lives,” Schwemmer said. “There are a couple people floating around Wichita – no pun intended – that have begun their flight training and never finished it for various reasons. … With me moving back, hopefully I can help motivate them to get back into it or grab somebody new and give them the spark to want to learn how to fly.”
Getting a legitimate ride
Balloon rides are often seen as a picturesque way to propose to your special someone or to celebrate an anniversary.
In Wichita, if you’re not already a certified balloon pilot (or you don’t know one), it will not be easy to buy a ride, though it may seem that way by searching the internet.
Different websites advertising hot-air balloon rides in Wichita – some with phone numbers with local area codes – lead to national ticketing agencies.
Beware of the ticketing agencies, Kansas balloonists say; if possible, always try to deal with the actual person giving the ride.
“They are bad news – people get routinely screwed by these people,” Tantillo said. He said he formerly flew for a national ballooning outfit. “Folks buy (tickets) at a very inflated price, then they have to travel a few hundred miles to the nearest pilot.”
A representative of “Wichita Hot Air Balloon Rides,” whose address is listed as being in the federal courthouse downtown, said the hot-air balloon ride it offers that’s closest to Wichita is in Parsons, about 130 miles to the east.
The pilot, Wil LaPointe, is legitimate, though he said it’s best to schedule through him directly. Balloon rides can often get postponed because of poor weather conditions, he said, so setting a date is a risky endeavor.
The problem with some agencies, he said, is that they sell tickets for balloon rides, and not every pilot will accept the tickets – leading to people being stuck with an expensive piece of paper and nowhere to use it.
Just go directly to the horse’s mouth and buy the ticket from the guy that’s going to give you a ride.
Wil LaPointe, hot-air balloon pilot who gives rides from Parsons
Tantillo’s company, Sail Away Adventures, does rides mainly out of Topeka but last year began offering rides out of Newton.
“We were getting a lot of folks from Wichita driving up (to Topeka),” he said. “We can schedule out of Newton generally on the weekends – on Saturday evening or Sunday morning at sunrise. We’ve had a few people inquire about it, but so far, no one’s chosen to have us come down there.”
At this year’s Riverfest, there are two balloon launches scheduled – for 6 a.m. on June 4 and 6 p.m. on June 5 near the Hyatt Regency Wichita.
In Topeka, the 41st annual Huff ’n Puff balloon rally is set from Sept. 9 to 11.
LaPointe said watching balloons launch sometimes entices people to pick up the pastime.
“There’s a joke that your first balloon ride will cost a couple hundred, but your next is going to be 20 or 30 grand when you get hooked and buy a balloon,” LaPointe said. “Some people … are so enamored with it they jump in with both feet and end up becoming balloonists themselves.”
Book a balloon flight
Sail Away Adventures, 785-272-3625, schedules balloon flights out of Topeka or Newton. Flights last approximately 45 minutes. A flight in Topeka costs $225 per adult, and a flight in Newton costs $275 per adult. Ages 12 and under can get tickets for half price. Chris Tantillo, the pilot, has been commercially licensed in Kansas since 1992, and his family has flown since 1972, he said.
Skyway Balloons, 918-850-2359, flies out of Parsons. Flights last about an hour and will be available starting in July. Rides start at $195 a person for a spot in a shared-basket balloon, which can hold up to eight people. Rides in a private balloon cost more. Wil LaPoint is a Federal Aviation Association-certified commercial pilot and has been the balloonmeister for the Sunflower Balloon Festival in Anthony for 10 years.