Hot Air Balloons soar over Oklahoma for the fifth year of the FireLake Fireflight Balloon Festival

“Vice President Ms. Capps has always had a vision to host a great family event here in Potawatomi Citizen Nation,” said Kelley Francen, who has served on the festival committee since its inception. “She has always been fascinated by hot air balloons. And so the idea was sort of, hey, let’s have a hot air balloon festival here.

This is the event’s fifth year, although organizers canceled it in 2020 due to risks from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Of course the pandemic is not over,” said Jennifer Bell of Citizen Potawatomi Nation. “So we still have internal pandemic procedures, but it’s mostly an outdoor event, which is great.”

The event has 25 balloons this year, more than ever.

“It’s a matter of ability,” Francen said. “I don’t know if we could get another ball here.”

Several of the balloon pilots are from Oklahoma or neighboring states. But the event also drew riders from Los Angeles and Marcos Island, Florida.

“It’s a regional event, but we have reach on both coasts,” said Chris Sabia, the festival’s balloon pilot coordinator.

Balloons use the wind to direct themselves and vary the height at which they fly to take advantage of different wind directions. Sabia checks the weather conditions and makes sure the balloons can fly safely.

“‘Weather permitting,’ that’s the big statement we use in ballooning,” Sabia said.

But he said the weather was looking promising for this weekend, so balloon passengers should have the chance to see pastures, ponds and even forests dotted with eagles’ nests.

Pilot Darrell Duer Jr. prepares his balloon for launch.

In June, the FireLake Fireflight Balloon Festival won the Oklahoma Travel Industry Association Award for Outstanding Event.

“So if you think of all the amazing events across the state of Oklahoma, this one was top of the heap for 2021,” said Stacy Cramer Moore, Tourism Director for the City of Shawnee.

This year, the organizers of the event expect between 20,000 and 30,000 people to attend the festival.

“There are a lot of people, and it’s great. We love it,” Bell said. “We want more than that all the time.”

Many of those attendees will be Oklahomans and visitors from neighboring states, but Sabia said the event also draws hot air balloon enthusiasts from around the country.

“Once we open the hot air balloon portion of the event, it sells out in about 48 hours,” Chris said. “To have this kind of draw in such a short time is unbelievable.”

People who have not purchased a boarding pass for a full flight can take a quick flight above the tree line in a balloon attached to the ground.

If the winds are light enough, the festival will shine the balloons every night at 8:30 p.m. The pilots collect their balloons in a field and light their burners, filling the huge colored envelopes with light.

“They almost look like huge candles with a really nice cover,” Francen said.

Moore added that the evening glow made her feel emotional and lucky to live in Shawnee.

“There are people coming from all over to have this experience because it’s unique and special,” she said.

More information about the event, including a full program, is available at firelakeballoonfest.com.