Hot air balloon festival gathers donations and excitement


Kyra Biarkis, senior, climbs into the basket and looks skyward as three pilots fire up the hot air balloon’s burners. Though the weather on Friday was too unstable for visitors to float more than a few feet off the ground, children and adults still climbed into the balloon baskets to be lifted into the air. Volunteers were allowed to ride free of charge. Photo by Thea Gonzales

For the 10th year in a row, the Quad Cities Balloon Festival gathered awe and excitement from audiences as 22 hot air balloons launched into the East Moline sky on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 22 and 23.
Darrell Day, the balloon meister, has been the festival’s resident hot air balloon expert and coordinator for the past five years. According to him, though the event is celebrating a decade of its existence, it is only growing through the involvement of volunteers from organizations around the area.
“We need as many volunteers as we can have. Otherwise we couldn’t do this at all. There’s a lot more work that comes with organizing this event than people think. Over the weekend, we have about 5,000 to 6,000 people visit. I think that the River Bend Foodbank has a great cause, and I’m glad so many people recognize that,” Day said.
The festival is one of the largest donation events for the River Bend Foodbank. This year, all of the proceeds for the event will be directly given to the food bank’s Backpack Program, which partners with local schools to provide food for students who are food insecure over the weekends.
Representatives from a variety of different Augustana student groups were present as volunteers for the festival. Many of them held cans and collected donations from visitors in areas of high foot traffic.
Senior Kyra Biarkis, service chair for the Chi Alpha Pi sorority, has volunteered at the Balloon Festival for the past two years. Though she noted that there have been some changes, she thought the reason behind the festival still held a powerful message.
“It’s a really fun, unique event. There’s a population of people that are really in need of food in this area, and this is one of the most interesting ways that the community comes together to meet that need. It’s something I hope continues for a long time,” Biarkis said.
In its 10th year, the festival features 22 pilots who have all completed rigorous training in order to attain their hot air balloon flying licenses. According to Day, everything the pilots do has to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which was why visitors were only allowed to ride a few feet up in balloons that were tethered to the ground on Friday. The atmospheric conditions were too unstable for an un-tethered ride, but Day said every pilot there was still passionate about what they were doing, even on the ground.
“I know all of these pilots personally: they’re good, qualified pilots. These crews – we’re like family, even though we travel to different places and have flown different instruments. Flying these balloons is what we all love to do,” Day said.
The festival is organized by the QC Balloon Festival Committee, a group of balloon enthusiasts and volunteers from the Quad Cities community. Stephanie Smith, a committee member, asserted that the Balloon Festival’s appeal comes from the whimsical nature of the balloons.
“Balloons are a bucket-list item for most people. Who doesn’t want to go up in a hot air balloon, you know? It’s just fun for everyone involved,” Smith said. “But it’s also a charity event. All the proceeds are going to the River Bend Foodbank, and I think we’re here both to show people how cool balloons are but also how we can use them to help other people.”