Up Front

High Flyer

Balloonist Ron Center's passion is more than just a lot of hot air

How does a guy go from being a villain on stage to running a hot-air balloon company?

Just ask Ron Centers, a hot-air-balloon enthusiast and owner of Michigan Balloon Corp. of Kalamazoo.

Centers began ballooning in the 1970s, and he came about his vocation in an unusual way. “Well, I was a theater major,” he says with a laugh. “That’s basically it.”

Centers was 22 years old in the summer of 1975 and had moved home to Michigan after spending a few months in New York City trying to make it as an actor. The Consolidated Gaslight Players in Jones, Mich., had offered him a role as a villain in their upcoming theatrical production. Centers had been cast as a villain multiple times with that company, and he was not sure he wanted to play one again. The theater’s owner really wanted Centers to come work in Jones, though, so he sweetened the deal by offering to let Centers pilot the hot-air balloon he was buying to attract tourists. He paid for Centers to get his balloon pilot’s license, and Ron Centers the aerialist was born.

The next 10 years were a whirlwind of adventure for Centers. He flew balloons in Jones for a few seasons before moving to Albuquerque to fly the Budweiser balloon. He carried a banner over the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., flew over the North Pole and helped start a scenic-tours business in the Cayman Islands. He even spent some time designing and flying blimps, which was not his favorite thing to do. “Test flying was a bear,” Centers recalls. “Blimps are so difficult to fly.”

He moved from flying blimps to working as a trainer for American Airlines, but he did not really like that job either. So he decided to get back to his love of flying balloons and moved back to Michigan in the late 1980s.

Centers started Michigan Balloon Corp. with just a couple balloons, but his Portage-based fleet has grown to about a dozen over the years. Not all are airworthy at any one time, but fixing and refurbishing the balloons is a hobby that Centers enjoys. What he enjoys even more, however, is taking people up flying. “When I’m giving people rides, and just … the smiles on their faces,” he says. “They’re so happy and so appreciative of the experience.” Making people’s once-in-a-lifetime dreams come true on a daily basis is “very fulfilling.”

Centers gets his own thrill out of flying and gets a faraway look when he reminisces about breathtaking views of Lake Michigan, flying over forests and watching deer and rabbits play, and flying so low over trees that his passengers can pick leaves. One of his favorite trips is to fly through vineyards. “You can just smell the must off of the vineyards,” he says. “It’s magic.”

Centers has found another way to share his passion for flying — by starting the High on Kalamazoo balloon festival. The first such festival was last September and marked the 50th anniversary of when the national hot-air-balloon championships took place in Kalamazoo in 1963. Centers’ festival, held at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, drew more than 10,000 spectators who came over the course of the weekend to watch the 30 balloon pilots from around the Midwest compete in a balloon race.

Centers plans to make it an annual event. This year’s festival occurred Sept.19-21.

“We’re hoping to get a little more land for the spectators next time,” Centers says, “because it’s going to be even bigger this year.”

Despite the work involved in planning such an event, Centers doesn’t let it get in the way of what he truly loves — flying his balloons. He flies year-’round and is constantly looking for new adventures or feats to accomplish. He says has been contacted about possibly doing a reality TV show about balloons, he may help his friend set up a balloon tourism business in Africa, or he might just stay in Portage and hang out with his wife, his kids and his grandkids.

One thing is for sure: He has no plans to come down anytime soon.

“Yeah, …it’s been fun,” he admits.

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Ron Centers began ballooning in the 1970s, and he came about his vocation in an unusual way. “Well, I was a theater major,” he says with a laugh. “That’s basically it.”