Featured Lifestyle

2023 Monroe Life Balloon Festival

Written by Matt Hollingsworth

The 10th Annual Monroe Life Balloon Festival will return to East Tennessee at The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Tennessee. Enjoy balloon rides, live music, food, games, an inflatable Kid’s Zone and much more all while supporting the Boys and Girls Club of Monroe County. The two-day Balloon Festival begins on Saturday, September 2nd and runs through Sunday, September 3rd, from 4pm – 10pm. The finale each night will be a Balloon Glow set to music with colorful hot air balloons beginning at dusk. We invite everyone to come out and
join in the celebration!

General Admission is $10, VIP is $125 and includes a meal catered by LongHorn Steakhouse. Get your tickets at the link below!


Live Music!

Dusty Leigh Huston

For the 10th Annual Monroe Life Balloon Festival, we are proud to present Dusty Leigh Huston as the performing artist for both days. This incredible country-music artist was named the 2022 ISSA Female Vocalist of the Year. Her debut EP, Roots & Dreams, has been a huge hit, and she’s hard at work on a new album. Her songs have been streamed well over 200,000 times on Spotify. She is from Idaho and now lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Come to the festival to hear her perform live!

“Dusty Leigh is quite the unique talent in music, today. Easily said, nobody sounds like Dusty and nobody brings to the table the sound she does, nor do they even come close to bringing to the table the same artistry.” — Nicholas Liddle, PopWrapped

Tim Graves & The Farm Hands

Tim Graves and the Farm Hands is one of the most exciting and in demand bands in Bluegrass music. Since their inception in 2010, the band has received over 82 award nominations, winning an unprecedented 34 major awards including Entertainers of the Year, Vocal Group of the Year, Bluegrass Band of the Year overall, and Bluegrass Gospel Band of the Year at the 2019 and 2020 Bluegrass Music Awards.

Touring over 150 dates each year, this talented group features veterans of the world-famous Grand Ole Opry, Grammy award winners, songwriters, and celebrated instrumentalists. They are one of the busiest touring bands in Bluegrass, performing over 150 dates per year at a variety of venues such as festivals, churches, performing arts centers, theaters, and fairs.

This Year’s Balloon & Pilots

Skip Durham, Mischief

Skip and Toni have been involved in ballooning since 2009, first as a private pilot flying for fun and then as a commercial pilot.

In 2010, they formed Bluff City Balloons to give others the fun and enjoyment of a private hot air balloon ride. They have one of only 6 balloons in the country specially outfitted to take up folks with any special needs. Giving and sharing is a way of life for the Durhams. They are excited to be a part of the festival.

Mischief is 120,000 square feet, 9 stories tall and was made in 2019. The basket has a door and is handicap accessible.

Sponsored By: The Knoxville Comprehensive Breast Center

Jack Semler, Smiley Scarecrow

The balloon soared over the sprawling vine- yards of Napa Valley, California. In the basket, Jack Semler stood with the woman who would one day be his wife. This was their first date, and Jack had surprised her with an early morning balloon ride. On that day, Jack fell in love with both ballooning and her. The couple wouldn’t dive fully into ballooning for another fourteen years after they had bought a house and raised kids. He was looking for a hobby in aviation, which had always been his passion, something that the whole family could get involved with. One day, he met someone at work who taught him how to fly and helped him find his first balloon. Seventeen years later, he hasn’t looked back.

“We now have five balloons,” Jack said, “and we enjoy travelling throughout the country to all these different balloon festivals, meeting a lot of great people.”

When flying untethered in a balloon, the wind blows where it wills, and Jack sometimes has to land in neighborhoods. When he does, he revives an old ballooning tradition. In 1873, two balloonists, the Montgolfier brothers, landed in a farmer’s field, and to show that they were civilized, they did a Champagne toast with the farmer. Today, Jack does the same when landing in a neighborhood, popping a glass of Champagne to enjoy with his new friends and sharing the story of man’s oldest form of flight.

Smiley Scarecrow is 160,000 cubic feet and stands 120 feet tall. It has appeared in balloon festivals throughout the world.

Fred Poole, Joy

Fred Poole soared above the Leon International Balloon Festival in Mexico, five black limousines tailing him from the ground. This flight, he was with the wife of a Mexican governor, and the limousines were the chase crew, the people who would pick them up at the end of the flight.

Fred was looking for a place to land, but the balloon had drifted over a local zoo. He asked his passenger if it was okay for them to land there.

She laughed and said, “Yeah, I’m on the board of directors. I think it’s okay.” The balloon set down in the safari exhibit, inside one of the enclosures, scattering herds of gazelles and zebras. Eventually, the zoo workers—who must have been surprised to see a hot air balloon landing in their zoo—came to help them out. It’s one of Fred’s favorite memories from his 13 years in ballooning, or as he calls it “the smile business,” that is, the business of making other people happy. It’s why his balloon is called Joy.

I ask him how he got started and he says, “I literally woke up one day and decided I was going to fly hot air balloons.” Before this, he piloted planes and did skydiving. One day, he heard about a balloon festival near his home in Mississippi and became interested. He reached out to the festival and found an instructor.

“The rest is history,” said Fred. “It’s an adventure every time you fly.”

Brian Dial, Bandit

Brian Dial leapt from the plane into the open air, parachute on his back, thousands of feet between him and the ground. The wind whipped past his ears, and the Earth seemed to charge towards him. This was Brian Dial’s old hobby—skydiving. His new hobby also involves the sky but in a much more relaxing—and less terrifying—way.

As a teenager, Brian Dial helped crew hot air balloons, but it wasn’t until he was 45, eight years ago, that he decided to pursue his pilot’s certificate. He bought his balloon, Bandit, which had been used by a previous owner to set the world record for highest altitude reached by a female balloonist for that category of balloon—32,000 feet!

Brian said, “Ballooning is a lot different than other forms of aviation because it’s so quiet and slow-moving. You can drift at treetops and see deer and animals running around, or you can go to a much higher altitude and see long distances, kind of get a panoramic view. But what I really like about it is you have time to look and study and find things, whereas in an airplane or even a helicopter, you’re usually moving really fast and you just catch glimpses of things.”

Brian loves to take his family out flying, including his wife, Beth, and their children— Brady (who is also Brian’s crew chief), Abbi, Savanna and Shianna—as well as his sisters and their families. Brian said, “That’s one of the things I really enjoy about ballooning is it gets the family together.”

He also said, “My favorite time flying is balloon events because… the crowd just really enjoys it, and they’re in awe. Especially flying out of an event, seeing
the event as you fly away from it, is just an amazing experience. Seeing the crowd’s amazement, as well as hearing the bands… Around here, our event [the Alabama Jubilee] is held right next to the Tennessee River. Flying over that is just a great sight.”

Brian Chase, Yellow Bird

My passion for hot air ballooning started back in 1983 when my father went for a balloon ride with Michael Fairbanks at a local county fair in the Poconos, Pennsylvania. Ever since, my whole family became a part of the hot air balloon community. Growing up with ballooning and learning from the best pilots has given me great knowledge and experience to become a commercial pilot.

Since the passing of my father in 2019, I took the lead of the family hot air balloon activity and transformed it from a weekend fun to a full-time business. Balloon Chase Adventures operates in the Poconos in northeastern Pennsylvania. We offer a variety of activities: from passenger rides, to tethers, special events like weddings, and lessons to student-pilots. Along with flying passengers, I have an amazing opportunity to travel throughout the United States and fly various special shape balloons during hot air balloon festivals, like Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico, National Balloon Classic in Indianola, Iowa, or The Great Reno Balloon Race in Reno, Nevada, and many, many more.

Ballooning has been a big part of my life for the past 40 years, and I am looking forward to giving back to the ballooning community in many ways.

Tom Steinbock, Remax

Tom Steinbock has loved balloons ever since he was seven years old. At that age, his next-door neighbor hired someone to fly the very first Kentucky Derby Balloon Race, and Tom got involved with chasing and helping crew the balloons.

“I fell in love with it when I was really young, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Tom said.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the race, and Tom has been involved every single year, with the sole exception of 1982 when he was building a house. But Tom didn’t feel too left out that year, because the finish line for the race just so happened to be his front yard! In 2016, he completed a childhood dream by winning the Kentucky Derby Balloon Race.

“That’s got to be one of my top favorite memories of all time,” Tom said. “I was just at the right place at the right time when I won.” He has been licensed for 37 years and has flown in 40 states and six countries. He has been married to the same woman for 41 years, has two golden retrievers, and lives in Crestwood, Kentucky.

Mike Wahl, Cool Ray

Mike Wahl releases the small helium balloon and watches carefully as it twists and turns in the air currents. He needs to know what direction the wind is blowing at all different altitudes. The information is critical if he’s going to win the balloon rally.

Mike boards his hot air balloon with his crew member and fires his burners, causing it to rise off the ground. Their target is a tall pole
in the far distance with a key on the top. The competing balloonists will go one at a time and whoever grabs the key wins the event and gets one step closer to the rally’s $10,000 prize. Navigating a hot air balloon is not easy. There’s no way to directly control where it is going as the balloon will always travel in the same direction as the wind. Fortunately, the wind is often blowing in different directions at different altitudes, so pilots can raise and lower the balloon to reach air currents moving in the direction they want. This is why Mike released the balloon earlier. Navigating this way takes experience, intuition, and some luck.

Eventually, Mike and his crew member reach the pole, but precision flying in a balloon is difficult, and they have trouble getting low enough to grab the key. Fortunately, there’s another option. Each balloonist in the rally was given a numbered bean bag to throw at the X at the base of the pole. The bags that land are scored from the pole at the X outward, with the closest three winning descending cash prizes.

Unable to reach the key, Mike and his crew member look for the bean bag… only to realize that they’ve somehow left it behind, meaning they have no way to win the competition. Panicking, they begin throwing random objects overboard instead—gloves, bags, whatever is loose in the basket. Finally, the wind carries them away from the pole and they have to land. At the end of the competition, when all the results have been measured, the judges return with a handful of bean bags dropped by other pilots… and a pile of random objects from Mike’s balloon. “Here’s all the stuff you dumped,” the judge says.

Mike asks if their creative solution still counts, and the judges inform him that he has won second place. Over the years, Mike would go on to win countless other rallies but never in quite so unique a way as this.

John Cavin, Tom Cat & Terry the Mouse

It all started when, after driving race cars for 10 years, John Cavin was looking for an inexpensive way to get the same thrill. That’s when, in 1979, he came upon hot air balloon racing. It was an adventure from the beginning, and John has been flying ever since. He has come to own some of the most unique and unusual balloons in the world. John now hires pilots to help him fly his many balloons as part of his company, Cartoon Hot Air Balloons. He also hired his grammar school friend Tweetie Whitfield to help him drive across the country. John travels the United States and Canada, attending Hot Air Balloon Festivals and Special Events during the year.

About the author

Matt Hollingsworth

Matt Hollingsworth is the chief writer for the Bingham Group where he writes articles for Monroe Life, Farragut Life, and McMinn Life magazines. He has a degree in publishing from Belmont University and has previously written content for Aspire—Clinton, TN's largest park. In his spare time, he writes science fiction with Christian themes.

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