Taking flight


February 1, 2022

Just north of Charlotte in Statesville, adventure-seekers enjoy the thrill of hot-air ballooning. 

by Jennings Cool   •   photographs by Jennings Cool and Seth Roddey

At sunrise and sunset, drivers of trailers hitched to SUVs and pickups with large beds sit and wait for their pilot’s signal while hot-air balloons paint the sky in Iredell County. Pilots use wind navigation and expertise to find a safe landing, steering clear of trees, power lines and roadways, all while communicating where they are headed to their chase crew. A flat, empty patch of grass in a resident’s backyard will work fine.

It’s not an unusual sight in Statesville, which has developed a reputation as the hot-air balloon capital of the East.

Modern hot-air ballooning in the U.S. started in the early 1960s when Ed Yost, a South Dakota manufacturer, fastened a couple of propane tanks to a chair that was attached to a 40-foot-wide balloon. He took his first flight in 1960, eventually earning recognition as the “father of modern hot-air ballooning.” By 1965, hot-air balloons were standardized for Federal Aviation Administration certification, marking a monumental step in recreational ballooning. 

Ballooning pioneer and legend Tracy Barnes moved to Charlotte in the late 1960s and founded a manufacturing business called The Balloon Works. In the early 1970s, Barnes moved the operation, now FireFly Balloons, to Iredell County. Barnes hired Statesville native and expert balloonist Bill Meadows as his national sales manager. Meadows had founded a business in December 1969 in Statesville that taught balloon piloting.

In 1974, Meadows founded the National Balloon Rally in Statesville as a reunion for the pilots he trained over the years. That rally, now called the Carolina BalloonFest, has been a highly anticipated event in Iredell County for more than 45 years. It is the second-longest consecutive hot-air balloon festival in the country, organizers say. (The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico is the longest-running.) About 40,000 people attend the three-day event in October, depending on weather conditions, according to Bud Welch, the festival’s executive director. Proceeds from ticket sales benefit local nonprofits. But ballooning isn’t just a once-a-year event in Statesville. 

Floating above the tree line is arguably part of the town’s culture. Residents wear hats, shirts, sweatshirts and other apparel with balloons stitched on them. Pickups with balloon baskets in the beds are frequent sights.

“The ballooning family we fly with most often is really tight. We all take care of each other and support each other,” says Kristie Darling, co-owner of Big Oh! Balloons, which was established in 1981. Darling and her husband, Charles Page, first attended the Statesville balloon rally about 40 years ago. “People would roll out their pickup trucks and put their balloons up in the misty morning. It was magical.” The couple lives in Page’s childhood home, which doubles as their balloon launch pad for Big Oh! Balloons.

Darling counts about 14 active balloon pilots in the region. One is Marc Klinger, who has been flying balloons for 32 years, he says. ​​He and his wife, Ursula, learned to fly in south Florida and started Airtime Balloon Co., offering trips in the Charlotte region year-round. While Ursula doesn’t fly as much anymore, Marc and his crew fly just about every weekend, weather permitting. 

Stateville’s year-round temperate climate allows balloonists to fly throughout the year. County roads that connect agricultural, rural areas to towns also make it easy for the pilots’ crews to access them once landed.

Big Oh! Balloons hosted about 75 balloon flights from April to November last year, which tops its average of about 50 per year. Flights range from about $300 to $325 per person, providing what Darling calls a priceless adventure.

“It is beautiful here,” Darling says. “On a really clear day, you can see the skyline of Charlotte and Winston-Salem. You can see Pilot Mountain. You can see the Brushy Mountains. And if you fly just south of Statesville, you can see Lake Norman.”  SP

Out and about in Statesville 

Statesville is about a 45-minute drive from Charlotte — it’s a straight shot up Interstate 77 North. While the area is well-known for ballooning, here are a few other local attractions to check out while you’re in the area. 

Stay at the Yellow Bow Tie Bed & Breakfast, a circa-1881 Victorian charmer where innkeepers Kevin and Cindy Drako have created a cozy but elegant atmosphere that’s a short walk to downtown shops and cafes.

Sample Southern Distilling Co.’s award-winning bourbons at their modern craft distillery. 

Visit local downtown shops including Roots Outdoor NC, which stocks clothing and gear for outdoor adventures. 

Enjoy coffee, tea, wine and beer at Lake Mountain Coffee, a two-story coffeehouse and craft-beverage cafe in downtown. 

Grab a bite to eat at Broad Street Burger Co.— don’t miss the cheese curds, a local favorite, and the onion rings with their signature wildfire sauce. Other local hangouts include The 220 Cafe (salads, wraps, small plates and more), The Bristol Cafe (brunch benedicts and omelettes, burgers and sandwiches), Davesté Vineyards (in nearby Troutman) and Red Buffalo Brewing Co. 

For more information on Statesville, including a list of companies offering balloon tours, go to visitstatesville.com/outdoors-adventure.

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