Hot Air Ballooning is very much alive in Michigan! And the West Michigan Balloon Association works hard to make sure that people of all ages can enjoy the thrill of this beautiful sport. Derrick Jones, Director of the West Michigan Balloon Association shares with us about the history of his organization, what their mission and goals are, and how this sport has inspired so many people to enjoy hot air ballooning.

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Transcript:

Derrick Jones: But it’s also the memories that you have each and every flight is different each opportunity when you’re out whether you’re flying in Northern Michigan, Southern Michigan I always encourage everybody to, get out, help crew meet up with a crew or a pilot, just like you did. It is a life changing experience and it’s a memory that, uh, you will never forget. 

Cliff Duvernois: So what makes Michigan a great state? I’m glad you asked. 

Cliff Duvernois: My name is Cliff Duvernois and I’m on a quest to answer that exact question. After 20 years, I’ve returned to my native Michigan, and I’m looking to reconnect with my home state. I’m talking to the people who are behind Michigan’s great businesses and top destinations, the same people who work hard every day to make our lives a little bit brighter.

Cliff Duvernois: And you Michigander are coming along for the ride. 

Cliff Duvernois: This is the Call of Leadership podcast. 

Cliff Duvernois: Hello everyone. And welcome back to another episode of the Call of Leadership podcast. Today, we’re gonna have a really fun podcast. I have actually been to a couple of the events for the West Michigan Balloon event association, as they’ve been around Michigan, dazzling us with their beautiful balloons.

Cliff Duvernois: And if you haven’t actually had a chance to get into a hot air balloon, I highly recommend that you do it today. We are joined with the Event Director for the West Michigan Balloon Events, and that would be Derrick Jones. Derrick, how are you?

Derrick Jones: I’m good. How are you?

Cliff Duvernois: I’m doing well. Thank you for asking. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and where you grew up.

Derrick Jones: Certainly right now live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I grew up in the Battle Creek, Michigan area.

Cliff Duvernois: So you grew up in, uh, the battle Creek area. Now, where did you go to college?

Derrick Jones: I went to college at Western Michigan university,

Cliff Duvernois: Okay. What did you study while you were there?

Derrick Jones: Business and aviation

Cliff Duvernois: Ooh. So that kind of led you into hot air ballooning.

Derrick Jones: sort of

Cliff Duvernois: okay. What’s the story there?

Derrick Jones: yeah. So battle Creek. For a long, long time. Since 1981 has been a staple for hot air ballooning in the country. for many years when I was a kid, my dad and I would go out and we would crew for the local balloon pilots that were flying their balloons in the evening. And that’s really what got us and got myself hooked in the sport of balloon.

Cliff Duvernois: Now, do you have a regular pilot’s license, a helicopter pilot’s license.

Derrick Jones: certainly. So when you study and you actually go for your pilot license, you obtain your pilot license and then you obtain ratings. So an LTA lighter than air is what that stands for. LTA is hotter, ballooning, and that. Different sets of regulations. But the pilot license itself is the same. And then you get your rating for that.

Derrick Jones: So you can fly planes and, get certified with different ratings and single engine and multi engine IFR conditions, VFR conditions, all for flying. Of course, you gotta know the weather as well, which comes into play in any aviation. Doesn’t matter what you fly. ballooning was my passion and that was the direction that I took.

Derrick Jones: Pretty much since I was a, a young kid, I started crewing when I was eight years old. And, uh, I then led into my first balloon flight when I was 12. And that was from a very well known pilot by the name of bill MERTK. He was from Houston, Texas, but he traveled up with this family as a family trip to battle Creek Michigan for the event that we held in battle.

Derrick Jones: For many, many years. when I took my first flight, I was just hooked and I know everybody says, gosh, you were only 12 years old. How’d you know, and I, and I said, I knew not only did I know I started training. When I was 14, I obtained my student uh, license and, uh, that allowed me to train gain hours.

Derrick Jones: And then when I was 16, I took my private test, my private, uh, for my pilot license. And, uh, then once that was done, I, I got my own balloon. I was actually worried cliff about getting my own hot air balloon versus getting a car. So that’s where my priority was when I was 16.

Cliff Duvernois: oh, I absolutely love it. Yeah. Cuz when I was 16 it was all about getting a car.

Derrick Jones: Yeah. Yeah. I had I had used my dad’s company truck and I thought if I can use my dad’s company truck and I can also use that as a chase vehicle. Let’s get a hot balloon. And so when I was 16, I spent many years mowing on. Shoveling driveways working for my parents getting that chore money, but I literally banked everything I possibly could and saved up to buy the balloon when I was 16.

Derrick Jones: And I did that. And then when I was. Started flying, obtaining my hours, uh, with my own balloon. I used my dad’s company truck as a chase vehicle. Cause that was the only vehicle I had. And when I was 20 going to be 21. I went for my corporate license, which allowed me to take paid passengers share the sport with other people, take people up for compensation.

Derrick Jones: And that really was, uh, the way to compensate for the cost and the expenses of the balloon insurance fuel, everything that just, it’s a very expensive sport. And then. I really thought this is great, but this is not something that I wanna do for business. So I got in the auto industry and the auto industry has been my career since I was eight 18.

Derrick Jones: I actually started when I was 17 at a Chevrolet dealership in battle Creek. And I started selling when I was 18 years old. And, um, here we are 26 years later and still operating in directing dealerships.

Cliff Duvernois: Beautiful. So I, I wanna go back and unpack a couple things that you talked about there, cuz I wanna make sure, you know, we get some clarity on some points. So for hot air ballooning, it’s not just, you know, some dude sitting on a couch, eating a bag of Cheetos that he says, you know what, I’m gonna go out and buy a hot air balloon with no experience.

Cliff Duvernois: Let’s just inflate it and go up there. You actually have to get a license,

Derrick Jones: Correct? Yes, it is a federal registered aircraft with an end number. We have our own set of federal aviation regulations, which we call ARS. But yeah, you have to be certified. You have to be licensed and, uh, in order to buy a balloon, you’ve gotta, have that ability to, um, prepare yourself. Take your test. Get through your check ride, get through your solo flight, just like you would a normal pilot license to fly a.

Cliff Duvernois: And one of the things that you mentioned about before, and that is with regards to the weather. So I’ve, I’ve sat in on some of the team meetings when there’s like hot air balloon competitions. And I was really blown away by the level of detail that goes into planning the weather. Like for instance, cuz the, the wind conditions at the ground can be completely different than what they are a hundred feet in the air or 200 feet in the air.

Cliff Duvernois: And, and I know that safety is a really big thing. Why don’t you talk to us a little bit about how those. Those weather briefings come about and how you go about making the decisions about whether you’re going to fly or not fly

Derrick Jones: Certainly one thing I always say we don’t plan the weather, the weather plans, our flight, the, we have to plan around the weather. So we have a lot of. Software that we read the wins above ground. So basically what that means is we send up a 10 or 12 inch helium balloon and we refer to it as a pie ball in our sport of ballooning.

Derrick Jones: And what this allows us to do is as that helium balloon. Once we let it go and it, it starts to rise. It gives us an idea of how far it is off the ground and the speed of how fast that helium balloon is going. And we do this for several reasons. One, we want to see what the wind is physically and actually doing and see how well it matches our forecast and our current conditions on what’s being reported by meteorologist.

Derrick Jones: So what that tells us is. Two to 300 feet, 400 feet. What those wind speeds are, what the direction is and how we plan our flight. And is it a safe flight that we can plan is successfully? So there’s a lot of things that go into the weather. We look at the temperature, the Dew point density, altitude.

Derrick Jones: We look at our pressure. The winds, the speed, the direction all comes into play as we, plan our flight, whether it be in the morning or in the evening. Now here in the Midwest, we fly two hour window. After sunrise and two hours before sunset. And the reason why we do that is we have the calmest conditions at those times here in the Midwest.

Derrick Jones: Whereas if you go out west or other parts, you know, in the country you may only fly in the morning because it could be very windy in the evenings or just too hot. So there’s a lot of conditions that go into our flight planning around the weather. It plays a huge role in our flight, every.

Cliff Duvernois: So now I can understand from like, let’s say like a competition standpoint where you get a bunch of balloonists together and you’re gonna go out there and compete, and you’ve got access to all of this, you know, this equipment, like you were talking about letting this balloon up into the air and being able to measure these things.

Cliff Duvernois: how do you do it? If you’re a solo, right? If you’re like, I’m doing this from home or whatever, and I just want to go out and I want to go for a ride. How do the, how does the solo person get this kind of information? So that way they can make safety decisions?

Derrick Jones: Certainly I can’t speak for everybody, but the, the majority like myself, when I go to fly we’ll look at the weather. We’ll look at all of our. Data, the weather data, look at what the, uh, high pressure and what the low pressure is doing in our area. We still have helium and the helium balloon in pie ball that we send up.

Derrick Jones: So it doesn’t change for me, whether I’m by myself or with a group of 10 people that we’re doing, uh, team competition or flying together during. Certainly it’s a little bit easier planning when you’re at an event or with other pilots, because we can share that data. We can talk about it, um, make that go.

Derrick Jones: No go decision based on safety, but whether I’m by myself or with a group of people, the flight planning for me is the thing.

Cliff Duvernois: Interesting. Okay. What I wanna do is I want to talk about the. Events that you put on and there’s there’s a good number of different hot air balloon events where you try to get the public out and get them exposed to the sport of hot air ballooning. Why is that? Why is that so important?

Derrick Jones: Well, that’s a great question. Many years ago, I. A higher balloon event because I saw the fellowship, the camaraderie what it does for family, friends, the community sponsors, other organizations teams that need community service volunteers to be a part of, uh, community event. It is ultimately the reason why I started the balloon event.

Derrick Jones: Not only because I love the sport and it’s a passion of mine, but in 1998, I actually started the first balloon event in battle Creek called the holiday balloon Fest. And it was a winter balloon event. And when I started it, I only had seven balloons and people said to me, there’s no way that we’re gonna have a successful balloon balloon event in the wintertime the first week of December.

Derrick Jones: In battle Creek, Michigan, it’s not gonna happen. And when people told me that it was. I needed to have my team on board with me, my committee, the board of directors the volunteers, the sponsors. I needed everybody to believe in me and believe what I had to, share if you will, with everybody. And the first year it was difficult, but we had a great time.

Derrick Jones: The second year we had 20 pilots and the third year we had 35 pilots. And then the fourth year we had 45 pilots. By our 10th year, it was a celebration of 75 balloon pilots, 75 balloons, the first weekend of December in the dead of winner. Fantastic flights. We had thousands of spectators. We had hundreds of volunteers.

Derrick Jones: We had numerous sponsors. And to this day I look back at. As a decade of family fun. And it was something that I had the passion to keep going, keep doing and bring everybody along with me because no one really believed that we could have a balloon event in the dead winner in Michigan. And we did. And the memories are still talked about today.

Derrick Jones: It’s the true reason of why we do the balloon events. The way we do is because of that factor. So I always, I always say, make it memorable take everything that we’ve got and make it better than where it was before. Share our sport of ballooning with the sponsors, the community, and everybody that doesn’t really know about the sport.

Derrick Jones: And it’s a constant education of blooming too, where conditions may be. Beautiful outside sunny light winds on the ground, clear skies, but at 200 feet, the winds 25 miles an hour, and the conditions are just not safe for us to fly. And that’s, that’s an education where a lot of people don’t know that they don’t deal with the sport every single day.

Derrick Jones: Uh, certainly it’s frustrating, especially when it’s beautiful and everybody’s anticipating you to fly, but we, we can can’t because of the winds and the safety of the. So it’s always been a passion of mine to share our sport with so many. And we have been very fortunate, very blessed to do that since 1998.

Derrick Jones: What that led into with that passion and now all of these people that said, ah, we can’t, there’s no way it’s gonna happen now. See, saw it happen. And now they continue to see it happen. We’ve brought ballooning to many cities across the state of Michigan and, uh, continue to do that. So it’s, it’s truly been just a, a wonderful journey.

Cliff Duvernois: So I have to ask this question because every time that I see hot air balloon competitions, I see balloons in the air for that matter, even on TV, whatever. The weather’s always beautiful. And for reasons I would like to explore you decided to do it in the dead of winter. I mean, what, what made you think?

Cliff Duvernois: I mean, obviously it’s a success, right? You’re talking about 7,500 pilots showing up. Thousands of people are showing up. You’ve been doing it for 10 years. So, mole top for that. But when you first started this, what made you think, oh, I’ll just do it in December. I mean, why not do it in, August before the kids go back to school or, June, just as the kids are getting out.

Derrick Jones: Yeah, absolutely. Well in Michigan, we, we do have a handful of events throughout the state of Michigan throughout the entire year. And the one thing that. Focused myself when I started a balloon event and started events back in 98 was we see everybody from may until October and then November, December, January Fe, you know, we don’t see anybody.

Derrick Jones: So. That was really a midway point that we could get together. It was, it was a unique event. It was exclusive, there was no other events like it, there was no organizations doing a winter event and that’s how we pulled pilots from Wisconsin in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and even Missouri.

Derrick Jones: Pennsylvania. I mean, you name it. We had pilots coming from all over for this because it was fun. It was unique. It was exclusive. And it was just something, even if we didn’t get to fly, we all got together as a, a balloon family. And that meant just as much to us as it was to fly in. And that’s what really led me to continue and to believe in having a winter event.

Derrick Jones: Some of the, um, some of the flights, we, I mean, the pictures are beautiful. We had eight inches of snow on the ground. It was 10 degrees outside. And what else is there to do in Michigan in December? Right. Besides skiing snow before we might as well do some ballooning as well. And some of those conditions, heat rises very nicely when it’s cool out heat doesn’t rise in heat.

Derrick Jones: So it was less wear tear on our balloons. It was less propane and fuel to use. But the conditions just like anything, right? You bundle up for it. You dress for. The weather, just like we would dress for the weather if, if the balloon event was in June, July or August. So it was really a nice event and it was a, it was a nice 10 year run that we had.

Derrick Jones: We ran it from 90. To 2000 eight. And then we closed the chapter of the holiday balloon Fest as a decade of, fun family fun. And to this day, people still want me to create and bring back the holiday balloon Fest, but we’ve gone, uh, in a different direction. And continuing to grow with other balloon events throughout Michigan, we brought ballooning to Frankie moth, Michigan 15 years. Which has been a, a wonderful run. They continue to, um, host that event on Memorial day weekend during their annual dog bowl in Franken. it was an honor. We, we actually brought ballooning to Frankenmuth. The last week of January during their snow Fest competition. So during their snow Fest competition, which is a huge international event that they have in the ice sculptures and the snow sculptures, we also had hot air ballooning and that’s how it all started in Frankenmuth.

Derrick Jones: And then here we are 15 years later and they have it on Memorial day weekend. The, uh, end of may. And in that timeframe, since we brought it 15 years ago, we did the great lakes, regionals, the Michigan. Hot balloon championships, all were hosted and held by Frankenmuth and the Zender family and all of the wonderful sponsors up there in Frankenmuth.

Derrick Jones: So there’s another avenue we took to continue to grow. We also started Kalamazoo balloon Fest. We kicked that one off and, um, 2013 that one is hosted at gold medal farms. It is actually coming up. It’s the end of August. So the end of this month, it is, uh, August 26th, seventh and eighth at gold medal farms.

Derrick Jones: And this is actually with, believe it or not, it is our 10th year celebration. Another decade of, of family fun. I, it’s just hard to believe. Where does the time go? You know, so we, uh, Are going to celebrate a wonderful Kalamazoo balloon Fest at the end of August. And then we kicked up two more events after that, believe it or not, we’re, we’re gonna continue to keep growing.

Derrick Jones: So my team thinks I’m crazy, you know? But we kicked off Hudsonville balloon days. In, we are in our third year for Hudsonville balloon days, and that’s held over father’s day, weekend in June at unity Christian high school in Hudsonville, Michigan. And then, uh, another one that we kicked off, which is absolutely a phenomenal area to fly.

Derrick Jones: It’s beautiful. Michigan waters, little traverse bay. Lake Michigan, and that is in bay Harbor, Michigan. And that is the third weekend of September. We are going into our fourth year, this year, and that is held, uh, the third weekend of September. And this year’s dates on that is the 16th, 17th and 18th of September in bay Harbor, Michigan.

Derrick Jones: And that event is called balloons over bay Harbor. It’s a very unique. It’s almost a gem of a balloon event because the, the area that we are able to fly the conditions with all the water around us, we really can’t fly anywhere else in Michigan with the exception of this area in bay Harbor.

Derrick Jones: And we’re very, very fortunate to have a balloon event up there.

Cliff Duvernois: important. You know, this is actually very impressive, cuz I did not know or understand that. There were so many of these ballooning events that were going on in Michigan. So first off, thank you for sharing all these. This was really caring for our audience. We’ll make sure to include the links to these down in the show notes down below the, the question that I got for you that I’d like to circle back on real quick is, is obviously this is a lot of work.

Cliff Duvernois: What you’re doing when you set up an event, it’s not just, Hey, let’s just show up here. And we’ll inflate balloons. I mean, there’s permits, you gotta get, and you gotta get the okay from the city and there’s, there’s money involved and all of this other stuff and, you know, places for people to, you know, to sit.

Cliff Duvernois: And I imagine there’s probably some level of security that’s running around. Why did you decide to go through all this in the first place to start creating these events?

Derrick Jones: Sure. Well, in my career of the auto industry it is all about people helping people and literally putting them in a, a better situation than where they’re currently at, whether it’s in life, whether it’s in their vehicle. And I do the same. And. Share that same passion in hotter ballooning. So it is a win-win for myself.

Derrick Jones: It is a lot of work. There is no question. It is nonstop year round planning but it’s all about relationships and the people, you know, so, you know, a lot of these folks we work hand in hand with throughout west Michigan Kalamazoo. The grand rapids area. And even up in bay Harbor in the Paska area, we have a lot of clients in all of those areas.

Derrick Jones: And it keeps you going based on the, the energy and the passion and the pride that you’ve got. And the ability of what we’re able to do is so different is so unique. It’s just a gratifying feeling that really balances out the worth. Like, why do I do this? And that’s the reason why, so it’s really a passion, not only to share the sport with the community.

Derrick Jones: But it’s also a win-win because of all the relationships in all the people, you know, you know, I go back to you say it takes a lot of money and all of the, uh, Gosh, uh, minutia, if you will, that goes into running a balloon event. Each city is different. The people are different. The policies and procedures are different.

Derrick Jones: And the value of what budget you actually need to operate by is different. Every single event is different. So bay Harbor operates on a very higher budget, even though I’ve got only 15 balloons there, the budget is pretty high because the cost up there is at high. So the expense is high. They operate a little bit different than others.

Derrick Jones: So we basically. Have an operating budget like anybody else when it comes to an event that we are getting sponsors other organizations to partner. It’s all about communication. It’s all about relationships and we have to have that and it’s, it’s gotta be a good solid foundation or I’m not interested in partnering.

Derrick Jones: I don’t have time and energy to waste on it. So if people want, come in with. Things that really don’t relate to the event. Or if there’s just energy that we don’t see a value in we’ll pass on a sponsor or we’ll pass on certain organizations because it doesn’t fit our mission and vision.

Derrick Jones: And those are very difficult decisions to make, but you really, as a volunteer, in addition to your full-time career, you really need to manage your time. Very, very tight

Cliff Duvernois: Right, right. I can imagine that. The question I’ve got next for you is because, and, and I’ll, I’ll admit, this is more of a personal question for me because I’m a big believer in that life is more than a spectator sport. I actually like to be involved. And so I was actually very fortunate cause I, I got some friends that actually connected you and I together that are really big in the hot air balloon space.

Cliff Duvernois: And they actually got me into crew. Yeah. And that was, that to me was just a beautiful experience all the way around. I mean, I was lucky enough to actually get into balloon and fly, but just to be there and just to help out the teams and everything else was just incredible. So why don’t you talk to us a little bit more about, the volunteering and the crewing that happens?

Derrick Jones: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m glad, uh, cliff that you shared that because that is exactly what, uh, you and I have been speaking of is that memory and just the ability to do something that’s different and unique and be a part of the sport. Just like you, I will guarantee you remember the day.

Derrick Jones: Where you were the conditions of the weather when you crude on the hot balloon for that first time, am I right?

Cliff Duvernois: That’s absolutely correct.

Derrick Jones: See, so that’s exactly what I’m speaking of is giving that opportunity, making it a memorable experience because it’s it is such a unique sport and it’s really a gift to be on the crew.

Derrick Jones: Uh, it’s a privilege to fly if you’re able to be on the crew and have that opportunity to. Balloon rides are most pilots charge 6 95 for two people for about an hour flight. And we’re typically booked all the time. And when you crew you’ve got that ability to be part of our family part of the crew understand the responsibilities that are needed as your crew position for that particular flight.

Derrick Jones: Cuz it may change. But it’s also the memories that you have each and every flight is different each opportunity when you’re out whether you’re flying in Northern Michigan, Southern Michigan balloon events, competition, there’s so many different attributes and there’s so many different things that take place that are different.

Derrick Jones: So I always encourage everybody to, get out, help crew meet up with a crew or a pilot, just like you did. It is a life changing experience and it’s a memory that, uh, you will never.

Derrick Jones: forget 

Cliff Duvernois: And if somebody is interested in crew, like for instance I don’t, let’s just pretend that I don’t know any pilots, if I am interested in crewing, cuz I just wanna experience that would be the best way for me to do that.

Derrick Jones: Certainly, well, obviously, if you know anybody that is. Or, you know, any balloon pilots that’s gonna be your start is to reach out to them. Say I’d love to crew. I’d love to be a, a part of your, uh, crew. If you don’t know any crew members or pilots, all of our Facebook pages, which are balloons over bay Harbor, Kalamazoo, balloon Fest, Hudsonville, balloon days, all three Facebook pages.

Derrick Jones: You can reach out to us express your interest to volunteer for any of the event. Express your interest to crew, if you would like to be on the crew or just be involved

Cliff Duvernois: Awesome. And, uh, Derek, if somebody’s listening to this podcast and. They want to connect with you or they wanna connect with the west Michigan balloon events association or anything else, what would be the best way for them to do that?

Derrick Jones: any of those Facebook pages, those are the best.

Cliff Duvernois: Awesome. And for our audience, we’ll make sure to have those links plus everything else that he was talking about. As far as the events goes in our show notes down below Derek. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today. I’ve really learned a lot. Thank you.

Derrick Jones: I’d appreciate it. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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