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VIDEO: 28th Annual Michigan Challenge Balloonfest Ready to Take Off

The event will be held June 22-24 at the Howell High School complex.

There's nothing like flying high through the sky and brushing tree tops in a hot air balloon, according to Dexter resident Andrew Baird.

Baird was one of 12 hot air balloon pilots that took off from Howell City Park Wednesday night as a preview to the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest, which will be held June 22-24 at the Howell High School complex.

Baird, a balloon pilot for 27 years, said he was hooked from his first flight. After studying aeronautical engineering in college, he decided to do an internship with Cameron Balloons UK in England. He later went on to buy the U.S. division of the company, which is .

"Ballooning is one of those sports that just gets into your blood," Baird said. "There's really nothing else like it. There's no other form of aviation that is like it. In a fixed wing plane, you're enclosed and there's a lot of noise and vibration. You're really kind of separated from the ground. But in a balloon, we brush through the tops of the trees, if we come across a lake, we dip down and get our feet wet. So it's just a different way of flying and it's very addictive."

Baird is one of 44 pilots that will be competing in the Michigan Challenge next weekend. Pilots will fly over the field and drop a baggie as close as possible to the X-shaped target. The closest marker wins.

Baird, who manufactures and sells the balloons he races, named his multi-colored balloon 'Can Be Yours.'

"I thought it was a great name until I showed up in Frankenmuth and I got my name tag. It said 'Andy Baird, Can Be Yours.'" Baird said.

A family affair

Howell resident Jerry Stephan, pilot of the balloon 'Jedami II,' has competed in every single Michigan Challenge Balloonfest. A former Marine Corps and Airline Pilot, Stephan taught his wife, Daria, and son, Michael, to pilot hot air balloons as well. Now all three are pilots and the name of his balloon is an acronym of Jerry, Daria and Michael. It's their second balloon with that name and fifth balloon overall.

Stephan said that he and his wife had been flying balloons together longer than they had been married. The couple, who have been married 36 years, met on the airline where Stephan piloted and Daria worked as a stewardess. They were involved in a group that became interested in hot air ballooning, so they formed a corporation to buy a balloon and began learning to fly.

"I hope to do this as long as I can," Stephan said about piloting. "I just read about a pilot in Kentucky that is 84 years old. If I can do it that long, I will."

Event draws thousands to Livingston County

The Michigan Challenge Balloonfest draws the best pilots from across the country along with thousands of attendees to Livingston County, according to event organizer Michelle Tokan.

The competition will take place June 23 and June 24 between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Mass balloon launches will take place between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. each day of the festival. New events this year include an interactive display from the U.S. Tennis Association, mobile gaming, Soccer Shots, SmashZone and a performance by the group Annabelle Road.

Discounted weekend parking passes are available at any PNC bank office in Livingston County until June 21 for $15. Weekend passes at the event cost $20.

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