During balloon season (mid-April to November), hot air balloonists take to the skies. Soaring across the patterns and shapes of the landscape, riders get a bird’s-eye view of Ohio. Over lakes and rivers, past cityscapes and suburbs, high above farmhouses and weathered barns, fields, and forests, balloonists take passengers where the wind current takes them.
Ask a balloonist where balloon love begins, and it’s usually at a festival. Thirty-three years ago, when Penny Suttle and her sister were at the Coshocton Balloon Festival on an early misty morning, a man stepped out of a tent near them and asked, “‘Hey, do you like balloons? I need someone to crew.” Forgetting she was afraid of heights, Suttle became an instant “wire watcher,” keeping an eye out for power lines and other obstacles. “I hopped into the balloon, and it took off before I knew it. Being able to see the countryside was the most awesome. It was so quiet,” Suttle recalls. She was hooked and crewed all summer.
Suttle upped her balloon game when she bought a balloon, became a commercial pilot, and competed in the U.S. Nationals. Out of 100 pilots, she placed 17th in the nation. Suttle, president of the Northeast Ohio Balloon Pilots Association, lives in Tuscarawas County with her husband, Paul, also a pilot. Through their company, Dreams Come True, they take people on an experience of a lifetime. “They get so excited. Our whole idea is to put smiles on people’s faces.”
After Gary Tyo was bitten with balloon love in the early 1970s, he had a decision to make: Buy a balloon or renovate the kitchen. The balloon won. Tyo, along with his wife, Kim, turned piloting fun into Mid-Ohio Balloon Adventures. Most days, as soon as Tyo and his passengers take off, usually from their Mount Gilead property, “people come out to see,” he says. “Children come running. I remember flying over someone’s house where a man was mowing his backyard. We landed in his front yard. He was so surprised to see us there when we came around the corner.”
For Tyo, who flew over 70 flights in 2020, camaraderie and festivals are part of ballooning allure. “Balloonists are a bunch of good people,” he says. If he sees a balloon in the sky, he can’t help but follow it.
Like Suttle and Tyo, Stew Gibboney’s balloon passion began at a festival. After 35 years of teaching high school auto mechanics, he turned his longtime balloon hobby into a booming business and people magnet. “It’s like being the Pied Piper,” says Gibboney. “I wish I had a nickel for every time someone takes a picture of me.” With five ReMax balloons and nine pilots, his Grove City company, Gibboney’s Aerostation, means photo ops aplenty.
Gibboney sees ballooning as a growing sport but a pricey investment. “You really have to have a passion for it. If you have more time than money, crewing is a place to start.”
Russ Jurg’s passion began early. At age 4 or 5, his first taste for floating skyward started with his uncle in the Netherlands. “My uncle was a pilot for 45 years in Europe and turned it into an international business.” With his mother’s encouragement, Jurg reached for his childhood dream of becoming a certified FAA hot air balloon commercial pilot and then founded Columbus Aeronauts.
In early 2020, Jurg was part of an international 100-balloon-pilot event in Saudi Arabia, landing him on the cover of Ballooning, the national magazine of the Balloon Federation of America. These days, Jurg’s first-time balloon ride thrills come from his passengers. Boyfriends and girlfriends, mothers and daughters, couples double-dating, and bucket list combos keep him busy. “Through ballooning, we touch a lot of people’s lives,” Jurg says.