Eight balloons took flight Saturday at the Chautauqua Festival in Wytheville. Courtesy of Rob Kern.
Eight balloons took flight Saturday at the Chautauqua Festival in Wytheville. Courtesy of Rob Kern.

For Mary Makhlouf, the appeal of flying in Wytheville is about more than the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is about catching up with the many friends she has made over the years.

Mahklouf was one of three women who planned to fly their hot air balloons as part of Wytheville’s 36th annual Chautauqua Festival over the weekend. A total of eight balloons took to the skies in an array of multicolored aircraft on Saturday, while three more remained grounded at Wytheville Community College to provide a display for onlookers. Pilots traveled to the rally from North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

Jenn Rees (left), Barbara McKinley and Mary Makhlouf (seated) at the Chautauqua Festival. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

Makhlouf, who lives near Hillsborough, North Carolina, was drawn to ballooning as a hobby in the late 1990s. She wanted to spend her free time doing something that would engage her mind, she said. She had never previously flown in a hot air balloon, but she knew she wanted to. She got her private pilot certificate in 2002; certification is required for all hot air balloon pilots.  

Makhlouf is 61 and has been attending the Chautauqua Festival for more than 20 years. She was a student pilot when she started coming, and she also volunteered as a crewmember for fellow balloonists John and Joyce Paisley. That’s how Makhlouf met David Harrison, who organized the hot air balloon rally in the early 2000s. He invited Makhlouf to fly at the festival for the first time in 2005. 

She piloted a balloon named Flying Colors, which she had purchased from one of her instructors in 2001. Makhlouf recalled that the community welcomed her with open arms. 

“A lot of rallies want high-hour balloon pilots to present the best of the best. That doesn’t open the door to fledgling pilots,” she said. By inviting her in, Harrison encouraged Makhlouf when she was a new pilot. She has been back every year since, with the exception of the pandemic-related cancellation in 2020. 

Now, Makhlouf flies in Moonshine, which she bought in 2021 after Flying Colors became too porous to fly. Moonshine is 77,000 cubic feet in size and features multicolored chevron stripes. 

Many certified pilots buy their own balloons, though the balloons themselves and the rigs needed for hauling are expensive. Kern says that a cheap used balloon can run $20,000. 

The hobby adds up from there. Pilots must be recertified and balloons must be inspected and maintained on an annual basis. “You have to maintain it, refuel it, repair it, pay insurance on it, pay taxes on it … just like you would a second car!” Makhlouf wrote in an email. 

Moonshine’s maiden flight took place over Wytheville shortly after Makhlouf purchased the balloon. While the name gives a nod to a certain bootlegging Blue Ridge Mountains culture, Makhlouf says it came to her the first time she saw the balloon lit at night. “There was a full moon and the balloon was beautiful. It glows very nicely. We thought the balloon’s name should have ‘moon’ in there somewhere.” 

Every time Makhlouf passes through Wytheville and its Days Inn, where the pilots stay for the weekend, she is filled with memories. “We come into this community once a year, but we come into a family that we’ve grown with,” she said.

Wytheville resident Robert Vaughn has crewed for Makhlouf every year since 2005, she said. Balloon pilots and their crew members form close relationships in Wytheville. “First you get to know their kids. Then you hear about their kids’ weddings, and then you get to see their grandkids,” Makhlouf said. 

In addition to Vaughn, Makhlouf has been helped by local volunteers as well as those who travel from the Grayson County community of Fries and from Durham, North Carolina, to help out. Makhlouf’s life partner, Jenn Rees, was her crew chief for several years, even after Rees became a certified pilot herself in 2015.

Vaughn watches the weather ahead of flights, helps Makhlouf set up her balloon and follows along her flight path to help her land and repack the balloon after the flight. Crew members are instrumental to successful balloon rallies, according to current rally organizer Rob Kern.

It usually takes three to four people to crew for a small balloon, according to Makhlouf. Landowners also sometimes offer to help repack the balloons after they land. 

Balloons that are larger or have special shapes can require crews as large as a dozen members. Makhlouf crewed for “The Energizer Bunny,” which is as large as the Statue of Liberty, at one point. She said that balloon took as many people as would volunteer to help.

Makhlouf told a story about the time Vaughn helped her land her balloon beside a pond while four-legged neighbors looked on. Vaughn was part of her chase crew.

The horses watched her hovering over the pond until Vaughn was able to push the basket a little bit. “Those horses were so tame. They were undisturbed,” she said.

“[The horses] reflect the disposition of their owners. So I would say kudos to the community of Wytheville because we see a lot of [kindness],” Makhlouf said. 

There are two types of hot air balloon landings, according to Makhlouf. The first is when she lands in the middle of nowhere and can see how beautiful nature is. The second is when she lands in a neighborhood and all the families come out to see the balloon. “[A balloon that] drops out of the sky is a beautiful surprise for everyone to enjoy.” 

A balloon in the air near Wytheville on Saturday. Courtesy of Rob Kern.

Makhlouf was excited to fly alongside Rees again this past weekend. The two flew together for the first time at the 2021 Chautauqua Festival. 

Rees was certified as a balloon pilot in 2015, but according to Makhlouf, she has been entranced by hot air balloons since she was a child. When Rees was 4 or 5 years old, a hot air balloon landed in her backyard in Canada. The pilot borrowed a tool from Rees’ father, and that’s when her fascination with hot air ballooning started. 

Kern’s grandson had a similar experience. “When he was little, he was just mesmerized. When something that big took off and flew through the air, he was speechless,” Kern said.

Barbara McKinley of Chatham County, North Carolina, also flew in Wytheville over the weekend. She thinks the hot air ballooning community needs more young pilots. “I’m always glad to inspire young kids,” McKinley said, noting that she has helped to establish a scholarship fund for junior balloonists who want to go to hot air balloon camp. 

“It takes a community to make a pilot,” Makhlouf said. 

The hot air balloon community is relatively small. There are only about 5,000 certified hot air balloon pilots in the U.S., according to Makhlouf.

Makhlouf and Rees invited McKinley to fly at the Wytheville rally; it was her first time there.

“I always thought it would be challenging,” McKinley said, referring to the mountainous region. 

Kern agrees that the landscape can be hazardous, but the festival hasn’t had any crashes or dangerous incidents. He said that a few balloonists have had hard landings over the years, primarily due to wind.

Usually, the balloons fly east and travel along the ridges, he said. But, sometimes the wind is pushing to the west and the balloons wind up over the town. If the wind direction is not favorable, the balloons do not fly, he said. 

The best experience for Makhlouf was when the wind currents allowed the balloons to return to their launch spot at Wytheville Community College. “It is rare in Wytheville for us to see that,” Makhlouf wrote in an email, recalling a remarkable flight along the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Because of the landscape and wind conditions, balloons participating in the Wytheville rally typically land in a different spot. In an hour-long flight, pilots can travel up to 10 miles, depending on the speed of the wind. An average flight for Makhlouf is usually about 3 miles by the time she zig-zags around the sky, she said.

For McKinley, the appeal of hot air ballooning is in the peace and tranquility of flying. “Up in the air, you’re so attuned with the moment that you don’t have time to think about worries,” she said. “There is no better aircraft than a balloon [by which] to see God’s creation, to see nature. I smell the mountain, feel the breeze, and can hear the coyotes or cows or whatever is out there.” 

McKinley’s father was an early hot air balloonist and a balloon repairman. He died during the pandemic, she said. “I’m sure he would like that I’m doing it.” 

The ties formed between Wytheville and their balloonists are strong, even in death. Makhlouf remembers old friends and fellow balloonists Jim Falls of Kings Mountain, North Carolina, and Ed McDaniel of Salem. They died within a year of each other between 2016 and 2017. 

Falls died the day he got home from the Wytheville rally, according to Makhlouf and Kern. “I texted him [after he got home]. He replied that he had had a blast,” Makhlouf said.

“I close my eyes and remember Jim and Ed in the skies of Wytheville,” she added. 

Pilots have time to reminisce about old flying buddies as they gather in the Days Inn breakfast nook before daybreak on Saturday and Sunday mornings. 

Makhlouf unofficially presents the weather to the group. “Ed passed that job to me just before he passed away,” she said. The group of pilots discusses the weather and the pros and cons of various landing spots. Regardless of the weather, they go to the field because they know spectators will be waiting for them. 

“One beautiful image is us all huddled together in the middle of the field on a cold morning,” Makhlouf said.  

“This is a hobby for most folks, so don’t set your watch,” Kern said, regarding the precise times the balloons would fly each day. The balloon flights are usually scheduled to occur at dawn and dusk because that is when the winds are at their calmest.

Wind and storms are the factors most likely to result in a flight cancellation in Wytheville.

Kern said the maximum wind speed for hot air balloon flights is 6 knots, or about 7 mph, which is enough to flutter a flag on a flagpole. They cannot fly if there’s a storm within 100 miles.

In fact, wind stymied the opening night of this year’s rally. The weekend was scheduled to kick off with a balloon glow, where the hot air balloons remain on the ground and are lit for the crowd’s enjoyment. It’s a spectacle of color, according to festival Kern. 

Friday evening was beautiful — for a kite festival. The skies were blue, the temperature was pleasant, and hundreds of people filled the community college lawn. But winds that hovered around 15 mph forced the event’s cancellation.

As Kern announced to the crowd: “[The pilots] want to fly. They don’t want to tear up their balloons.” 

Bill Scarborough’s balloon, Cool Change, fills with air on Friday evening. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

Bill Scarborough, who lives in Piney Flats, Tennessee, with his wife, Kathy, has attended the festival since 1991. On Friday, he tried to set up his balloon to show the power of even a little bit of wind. As the balloon partially filled with air, it began to roll back and forth along the grass. The attached three-sided basket wobbled. Flames, leaping from the burner system, were caught by the wind and lunged towards the balloon’s fabric panels. 

“He’s a good sport for trying to show people what would happen,” Makhlouf said.

In previous years when the winds were too high for the balloons to be raised, balloonists performed a so-called candlestick glow, where they lit the burners without the balloons attached. Makhlouf remembers one year sharing her basket with Dottie Jordan, the assistant manager of the Days Inn. “We just had a big ol’ smile on our faces,” Makhlouf said. 

This year, though, pilots decided that even a candlestick glow was too risky.

Glow or no glow, balloon pilots and community members didn’t let Friday’s canceled activities spoil their fun. Dozens of children danced around Scarborough’s rainbow-tiled balloon as he attempted to fill it with air; some even got in on the flapping fun, grabbing the edge of the balloon’s fabric, lifting it into the air and yanking it back to the ground, much like kids play with parachutes in gym class. They were led by Scarborough, his fellow pilots and members of his crew.

On Saturday morning, Wytheville awoke to calm winds and clear skies. The balloon launch went off without a hitch as eight balloons took to the skies. 

After the morning flights, the balloonists typically go to breakfast together. If they have not flown because of bad weather, they go to a second breakfast, Makhlouf said. They may take a nap before getting ready to fly again at 6 p.m. 

Though the weekend is exhausting, Makhlouf and Rees try to fit in time to visit the rest of the festival. They particularly like scouting out hot air balloon merchandise, Makhlouf said. Some of the balloonists attend the chili cookoff or the concerts as well.

“The Chautauqua Festival is Wythe County’s best-kept secret,” Kern said. 

The Chautauqua Festival runs through June 24. It features an arts and crafts show, live music, food trucks, family activities and more. Admission is free. See the Wythe Arts Council website for more details. 

Lindsey Hull is a 2023 graduate of Hollins University, where she studied English, creative writing, and...