Labor Day Lift Off: Hot Apple Productions takes holiday event to new heights


Amid high attendance and pleasant weather, tourists and locals alike gathered for three morning liftoffs during Colorado Springs’ annual hot air balloon show.

Now in its 40th year, the Labor Day Lift Off included hot air balloon rides, food trucks, live music, ultimate disc competitions, as well as skydiving and wakeboarding demonstrations on Prospect Lake, all intended to elevate expectations and increase entertainment, according to event organizer Scott Appelman.

The festival is presented by the Colorado Springs Sports Corp. Appelman’s company, Hot Apple Productions, has operated it for the last two years.

Among the additions: Hot Apple Productions offered an app for attendees to reference this year. They also had a record display of 67 balloons.

“It’s a very competitive business these days, so we’re trying to do the best we can to make sure the community can have something to be proud of,” he said.

Labor Day Lift Off is the largest hot air balloon festival in Colorado. Last year, it attracted a crowd of 150,000.

“This is a 40-year tradition in Colorado Springs that has really become part of the fabric of our great city,” said Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers.  “We’re thankful for our volunteers, proud to partner with Scott and Heather Appelman who sponsored the Labor Day Lift Off and proud to continue our partnership with the Colorado Springs Sports Corp.”


The yearly festival was previously known as the Balloon Classic; Hot Apple Productions took it over after Colorado Springs Balloon Classic Inc. announced in 2014 it would not return the following year.

Appelman said he knew he had to build a reputation for his Albuquerque-based businesses, Hot Apple Productions and Rainbow Ryders Inc., which provides commercial hot-air balloon rides, in the Springs to gain connections and support.

“This year has been a completely different game because we have some credibility after last year,” he said.

As Labor Day Lift Off continues to grow in size and popularity, Appelman said the event wouldn’t be where it is today without the support from the city and community. He was awarded $90,000 in Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax proceeds from Colorado Springs as initial funding to grow the event.

“We’re trying to be less reliant on the city or LART through more vendors and sponsorships so that we can balance that out,” he said.

Products such as Xfinity, Pepsi and Budweiser have participated in the liftoff, but Appelman said he’s looking for the sign shop down the street or smaller restaurants that can provide a gondola sponsorship.

“That’s our next goal, with our $900 sponsorships. We want small businesses to become a part of it, but need to show them where the value is because it’s a lot of money for a small company,” he said.

Hot Apple Productions also organizes the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Appelman called it “a different kind of beast.”

“It’s the largest in the world, but bigger isn’t always better,” he said. “Doing an event like this is a lot more intimate and everybody knows each other. And I love flying in Colorado Springs — it’s just beautiful.”


Skip Howes, who’s been a hot air balloon pilot for 21 years and participated in Labor Day Lift Off this year, said an average flight lasts about an hour. The balloons travel less than 10 mph.

Liftoff during the three-day event was based on wind conditions and the cloud ceiling level each day. The ceiling needs to be at least 1,500 feet high to take flight, as recorded at the Colorado Springs Airport.

Weather is always the deciding factor with liftoff because hot air balloons lack a radar system and transponders — unlike aircraft — and the wind determines their travel direction, Howes said.

“We follow Visual Fight Rule conditions because you can’t always pinpoint where another hot-air balloon might be and don’t want to run into it,” Howes said. “Although people are disappointed when rides are cancelled, as we say in the balloon community, ‘I’d rather be on the ground wishing I was up in the air, than in the air wishing I was on the ground.’”

Buying a hot air balloon is like buying a horse, he said, it’s not the initial purchase that makes the activity expensive — it’s the other components.

“It will cost you roughly $20,000 to $30,000 to purchase a large hot air balloon and [the] expenses that follow include regular inspections, a trailer to haul the balloon gear, a big vehicle to haul the trailer, propane and a crew,” Howes said.

But the hot air balloon process is fairly simple and extremely safe with modern technology, he said.

A hot-air balloon has an envelope [the balloon fabric], basket, burners and a fuel system. The balloon is inflated with cold air, heated with a burner and rises as the temperature inside the balloon increases. Cooling air in the balloon will lower it. Between 20 and 30 gallons of propane is required for each flight, Howes said.

The first hot air balloon took off through Paris in 1783, reaching 3,000 feet off the ground.

Howes said the farthest he’s ever journeyed in a balloon is 20 miles.

“My favorite thing about the activity is making people smile,” he said. “It’s a different sensation being in a hot air balloon and the community in Colorado Springs is a close-knit one.”