Under the Sun

Tim Matykiewicz, Founder of This Weekend's Arizona Balloon Classic, Isn't Full of Hot Air

Arizona Balloon Classic
Arizona Balloon Classic Josh Chehey Photography


People would simply not believe the strange stories Tim Matykiewicz could tell about hot air ballooning. “This one time, we got a call from a lady who wanted to know if the event was indoors or outdoors,” he marveled during a phone conversation early this month. “Come on! Balloons don’t fly indoors.”

The founder of the Arizona Balloon Classic got his first taste of balloon festivaling in 1997 as executive director of the Thunderbird Balloon Classic. By then, he’d been a balloon fan for more than a decade.

He knew things about hot air ballooning that most people did not. There was, for example, a very specific science involved. “In hot airing we call that 7-7-70,” Matykiewicz explained. “7 a.m. is the best time to fly. 7 p.m. is the best time to glow a balloon at 70 degrees. See?”

Glowing a balloon is the most popular part of his annual Balloon Classic, which returns to Goodyear Ballpark for a 10th anniversary celebration this weekend (more info at abcfest.com). “Glowing is that thing where the balloon remains on the ground and is illuminated from within,” he said. “Your brain goes nuts when you see it. I am serious. The coolest thing you will ever see is a hot air balloon glow.”

Hot air ballooning is more than 200 years old, Matykiewicz said with some awe in his voice. “The Montgolfier brothers started it in France. They sent up a couple of ducks, a rooster, and a sheep. I think that was in 1778.”
When the barnyard denizens returned to earth unharmed, hot air ballooning was deemed safe and became a staple of wartime defense. “They’re a little slow, right?” Matykiewicz wondered aloud. “So they were mostly used in reconnaissance and observation.”

People don’t know that hot air balloons don’t go as high as, say, an airplane, he said. “People want to see what’s on the ground,” he explained. “Other people they can wave to, or animals. They like to hear dogs barking. You’re probably up there between 500 and 750 feet, but once you get higher, things start to get pretty small, and it’s not as exciting.”

Still, there’s a lot to love about ballooning. “The coolest part is hanging out with the pilots,” Matykiewicz said. “It’s like working with an actor or a musician. They all have different personalities. They’re super cool, they love to entertain, they love to party.”

Many people also aren’t aware that balloon pilots are big tailgaters. “They’re an all-around great group of people,” Matykiewicz said. “But they can also be very demanding. Also rather needy.”

The pandemic changed the hot air balloon business, he said. “Well, it sucked. We tried to keep our bookings, with face masks, hand sanitizer, all that stuff. We were swimming in hand sanitizer. But then that executive order that shut everything down just killed us.”

Social distancing in a hot air balloon wasn’t really an option, Matykiewicz admitted. “The basket is 3 feet wide. We leave it up to the consumer. We’re inviting them, and they’re taking the risk. We didn’t make them come or ask them to buy anything. Let’s just say we’ve had a few lunches with our attorneys on this topic.”

Worried about attendance, Matykiewicz has punched up this week’s event. “We’re going to have lots of waters slides out there,” he promised. “And lots of things to drink. Oh, and we put in a kite festival, as well. Look, maybe you don’t like hot air balloons or you’re afraid of heights, but you could go on a water slide or fly a kite.”

Things are looking up, Matykiewicz said, pun intended. “We’re expecting 5,000 people this weekend,” he promised. “After COVID, they’re suffering from cabin fever. We’re going to fix that by taking them up in the air.”
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela