Balloon meister Ron Broderick is working on keeping a lot of balloons in the air. The West Friendship hot-air balloon pilot is organizing the Preakness Celebration Balloon Festival to be held at Turf Valley May 15 and 16, with an Armed Forces Day observance on Saturday, May 17.
"I'm responsible for all the balloons," he said.
Twenty hot air balloons are expected at the Preakness Festival, including his own rainbow-hued Dreamstar. Balloons are coming from as far as Savannah, Ga. Although most of the balloons are the traditional round or oval shape, this year an upside-down elephant named Pea-Nut will be joining in. Another balloon, Rickenbacker and Eddie, which looks like a regular balloon — with a World War II-era biplane flying through the middle of it — is coming for Armed Forces Day.
Although previous Preakness activities have included hot air balloon races and balloon glows at Druid Hill Park and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Turf Valley has hosted the balloon festival for five consecutive years, according to Nicole Hock, event manager at Turf Valley. On Thursday and Friday, the festival runs from 4 to 9 p.m.
"We're having a lot more activities for children," she added. Hock said the number of vendors has doubled since last year with family-friendly activities ranging from tai kwon do demonstrations to tie dye activities and even a booth for children's haircuts.
The 729th Brigade Support Company of the National Guard, based in Ellicott City, will set up a rock climbing wall and bring several of their vehicles and table displays, said Staff Sgt. Kamil Maclin, "to establish our presence in the community. "A lot of people don't know the National Guard exists."
The mission of the 729th is to support the 58th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade based in Towson with mechanical support, transportation and food. "We have the cooks," Maclin said.
The highlight will be the balloons. Half of them are expected to launch about an hour before sunset — if the weather is fair and the winds are calm. The other half of the balloons will remain behind for the balloon glow at 8:30 p.m., according to Broderick.
There are a number of different ways to get close to the balloons.
Visitors may book a balloon flight. Balloons will ascend at about 6:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 6 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Flights last about 30 minutes and cost $220. (Reservations are recommended; call 410-442-5566.)
Tethered balloon rides are also scheduled from 4 to 8:30 p.m. These balloons stay attached to the ground but rise 60 to 80 feet, Broderick said. Baskets will hold four passengers for the up-and-down ride which cost $20 for adults and $20 for children.
Walk-through tours of the balloons will also take place throughout the festival. The envelopes will be inflated but stay on their sides so visitors may walk inside the colorful orb. Admission is $2.
Broderick said he counts on volunteer crew members throughout the festival. They help on site getting each balloon assembled and inflated. They follow in chase vehicles and help pack up the balloons for the return trip.
It was a Preakness hot air balloon festival at Druid Hill Park more than two decades ago that first piqued Broderick's interest in these colorful fliers. "We enjoyed watching them take off," he said. So he took ballooning lessons and that sealed the deal.
"You take the first ride and get hooked on it," he said.
He bought his first balloon 24 years ago, the Dreampuff, a rainbow striped balloon a retiring pilot was selling. Two years ago when Broderick decided it was time to retire the Dreampuff's "envelope," he bought a new one, designed to look like the original. He kept the same basket. Fully inflated, the Dreamstar stands 90 feet tall.
When the weather cooperates, Broderick takes off several times a week. He's witnessed a few wedding proposals in the basket of his balloon and a very small graduation party will take place there in the upcoming weeks.
"It's a ball. We love flying," Broderick said. "My crew and I love the people."
Boy Scouts from Troop 994, sponsored by Bethany United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, have helped at the festival with everything from balloon set up to clean up for the past several years, according to Scoutmaster Chip Galloway. About 20 troop members and adults, plan to be on hand again this year.
Adults have driven chase cars while the boys help with set up, the walk-through balloon, games for younger kids and when it's all over, litter clean-up, he said.
"It's fun," said Galloway. But it's part of their duty to perform community service. "It gives you a sense of responsibility when you're helping with a hot-air balloon that's $50,000," he added.
Visitors to the festival should park at the Howard County fairgrounds and catch the shuttle to Turf Valley Thursday and Friday. Parking is $10 at the fairgrounds. For morning balloon launches on Friday and Saturday, parking will be permitted at Turf Valley, according to Broderick.
Although the Preakness Festival officially ends with Friday night's balloon glow, the festivities continues on Saturday morning — Preakness Race day — with a military tribute in honor of Armed Forces Day. The Eddie and Rickenbacker balloon, designed to commemorate the history of army aviation and piloted by a retired army aviator, will take part in Saturdays observance, Broderick said.
Just before the hot air balloons take off for the last time, a ceremony honoring American service members with speeches, band music and presentation of colors will take place. "It's going to be quick," Broderick said.
Staff Sergeant Maclin said the National Guard arrangements are "90 percent there" with plans for a band and honor guard. She added that she's confident about the other 10 percent.
When it ends by 8 am., the balloons will ascend, with invited wounded warriors aboard. All of the flights, of course, are weather dependent.