For years, I have wanted to experience what it might be like to be in a hot air balloon. I have seen many photos and every once in a blue moon I will spot one in the air while driving, but I never have had the chance to actually be in one until recently.
Hot air ballooning is a special sport and a thrill in a different way from other sports. First, I need to give you a little bit of material to digest for better understanding of this sport that dates back hundreds of years.
One rides in a basket also called a gondola. The basket is straw-like and is about four feet deep, roughly four feet wide and long and constructed out of durable Kooboo and Palambang cane. The general private ownership balloon basket can hold as few as one and as many as four or five passengers. Those used for commercial use can be many times larger. But this story is all about fun and privateers. Most of the time, the balloon portion is constructed of ripstop Nylon or Dacron (polyester) material. Nylon cords are attached from the basket frame to the balloon preventing the balloon from sailing away freely. Generally, in these non- commercial vehicles, two tanks of propane gas are secured in the basket as facilitators for flying. The way a hot air balloon moves is caused by the increase and decrease of warm air propelled into colder air. At the very top of every balloon sits a parachute valve. This little piece of material is a self-sealing flap that allows hot air to escape at a controlled rate causing the entire unit to descend or ascend. Each owner customizes his or her own balloon in terms of color, style, shape and size. Now that you have a foundation of sorts, let’s go into my story.
Hot air ballooning requires still air. Wind can carry your flight to destinations unknown and unwanted. So generally you will see flights taken at dawn or at dusk when the air is the most still. Yes, at times pilots fly during the daytime hours, but generally early morning and later in the day are the most popular and safest times for rides.
Last year I attended the Adirondack Balloon Festival only to find the weather conditions did not allow for any flights the entire weekend. This is an accepted disappointment of this sport. Some balloonists travel hundreds of miles and never get off the ground because the weather is not cooperating for them (rainy, lightning, and way too windy). Being invited back this year, my wife and I hoped that the weather gods were on our side. We arrived on Thursday night mid-September to a street party in the nearby town of Glens Falls. Music, cars and food, as well as a few balloon baskets shooting fire into the air, were promoting that weekends event, sponsored by the Adirondack Balloon Festival in Queensbury, New York. The host town is at the foot of the magnificent New York Adirondack Mountain range and the balloon rides are held on Friday, Saturday, Sunday mornings and late afternoons in the area. Friday’s rides start from a local park in town while Saturday and Sunday rides occur at the Floyd Bennett Airport in Queensbury. After meeting some of the celebs of the event on Thursday, such as the “Balloonmeister” Bob Dicks (he is the overall master pilot in charge of the event calling the shots and determining if we can fly or not), we found our hotel and had a good night’s rest.
Early, very early, Friday morning we met many balloonists at the pilots’ meeting at 5:15am in a small park in town. They had hoped to be able to make a few short flights on Friday but the fog was rolling in and the air was not steady at all. So, only tethered rides were in order. We got to walk around viewing the balloons, asking questions, taking photos and learning what we could about this sport. We discovered a whole new community of enthusiasts. Each owner has his own team of helpers. These balloons are so big that it often takes a team of two to eight helpers to get a balloon inflated and ready to fly. After the morning’s disappointment, not being able to go up and travel, we spent a day at leisure. Walking around nearby Lake George and taking in the local scenery was pleasant. We were instructed to report back to the Floyd Bennet Airport for the meeting around 4:30pm. After lots of hesitations and contrary weather reports, Balloonmeister Bob Dicks left the final decisions to the owners. Did they want to fly or not? I had been assigned to a balloon owned by Jim Oliver, out of Pittsford, New York. Jim is a longtime pilot and owner, flying since 1996. He is a commercial aircraft pilot, which makes his qualifications sit well with this writer as a passenger. Jim has been actively flying in a number of festivals around the country. So when he decided that he was going up, I felt I was in good hands. The window of opportunity was only open from 6pm -7pm, so those going up had to get their balloons inflated and ready to launch by that time. I stood by watching and photographing as Jim and his family (his helpers) opened the large bag and began spreading the huge colorful balloon out on the ground. He and his family clipped important sections together with special grips that would secure the balloon to the basket. A massive fan was started up and air began to be pumped into the center of the balloon. Next, the propane was lit and huge blasts of fire shot out into the balloon. This is called “Wicking”. The introduction of air mixed with the propane inflates the balloon to its maximum. At that point the gondola is set upright to its correct position from its side and the occupants begin to climb in while the helpers hold the gondola on the ground. My balloon ride included a total of five passengers. I was one of two media members, the pilot Jim and two paying customers - we were about to go for a ride. Grabbing a couple of cameras and lenses, I tried to take a secure standing position: a little tight with five adults but it worked. What I never realized was that while I was adjusting my cameras we were lifting off the ground. There is no sensation whatsoever of lift. It is as my wife likes to say, as if the ground is falling away from you. On the crossbar frame of the gondola, sit two large triggers. The pilot controls the lift and the descent by squeezing those triggers which in turn releases propane gas into the envelope, also known as the balloon. Up and up we went, some 600 feet or more, floating above the airport. I photographed about everything on earth I could see as well as many of the other balloons that were taking off or already in the air with us. There were about 80 balloons in all that took flight this Friday eve. The ride was glorious. It was soft and smooth and as sensual as a warm breeze on a sweltering hot day. As we flew Jim explained several facets of his balloon and how long he has owned it and what it cost. I was amazed that these flying baskets can cost from $35,000 to well over a $100,000. Some of the pilots bought theirs pre-owned, because buying a new one can be as much as buying a small house.
The flight lasted some twenty minutes more or less. We had been warned by the weather guru during the meeting that the winds might kick up so if we were going, we would be totally in the hands of our pilots.
One of the most important jobs of the crew is to ‘chase’ the flight itself. The balloon doesn’t always land exactly where you want it to and it might need the crew to go further or deeper into an area before they can retrieve it. One doesn’t land a balloon like a planned parachute drop on a tarmac or into an empty parking lot. We grazed over a huge meadow of 5’-6’ tall goldenrod before we touched down. The problem with flying Friday night was that the winds were beginning to kick up and we had to fly in one direction only and that was north. Going too far meant landing in Lake George which would not have been very pleasant at all, and dusk was gaining on us as well. So we downed in this massive meadow just a mile or so before the lake. As the other photographer and I climbed out of the basket to take photos of the balloon, still inflated but sitting comfortably in the tall weeds, wicking away, we both noticed many spots on the ground where deer had camped overnight, matting down the ground in large patches. The idea of ticks entered my head and I was concerned that I might pick one or two up in the meadow. Luckily, I didn’t. The chase crew arrived quite a bit after we landed as they had a hard time finding us in the deep meadow, way off the dirt road. This was private property, of course. Balloonists have a special custom that they explain to all those newcomers they give rides to. Basically, many years ago in France, pilots who landed on others’ properties were not viewed as friendly neighbors but as intruders. So the French pilots began carrying French Champagne on board to present as a thank you to the landowner as well as to toast Mother Earth for a safe return to terra firma. Jim explained this as he popped the cork, the crew gathered around and shook each other’s hands and thanked everyone for their contribution to a safe and fun flight. The landowner had already received his bottle pre-flight as a thank you. The bubbly was poured into small paper cups and we enjoyed the champagne as Jim’s kids enjoyed some sparkling cider. It took the crew another half hour to pack the balloon up and put the bag and basket into the trailer. We had a ride of about ten minutes back to the airport and to our cars, just as everything at the airport came to a halt for the evening.
At 5am Saturday morning we gathered for the pilots’ meeting in the pilots’ tent at the airport. It was decided that this was a great morning to fly. Not being greedy and having been invited as a media guest by the head photographer, Erin Coker, I gingerly asked if it might be possible for my wife to get a ride this morning. I was told yes, if there were any free spots available. Understandably paying customers had first dibs. She was assigned finally to the largest balloon on the field, a giant blazing, smiling sun. It measured some seven stories in height and required eight helpers to retrieve in the field. Unfortunately, the owner was not able to gather the needed extra crew to chase this massive beauty, so its owner decided just to inflate her and keep her tethered. This allowed my wife and others to float up 25 feet or so above the crowd permitting them to at least view the field from a higher vantage point. Meanwhile, I walked around taking photos and talking to people. About 100 or more balloons adorned the sky. Some landed while others were taking off or inflating and getting ready for their rides. By 9am, all the balloons were back on the ground and packed away ready to return later for another possible flight. After the late afternoon flights are completed there is one more activity to be enjoyed. Called “Lighting Up the Night” – an Airport Moonglow when the gondolas sans their balloons stay on the ground wicking (igniting the propane into the sky) around 8pm or so.
This is a wonderful event. It is said that this festival is the 3rd largest in America and draws well over 100,000 spectators. They have an area for vendors selling food, apparel and of course hot air balloon souvenirs. One can reserve a flight ahead of time and just hope the weather cooperates. The flights are not inexpensive- but well worth the adventure, the vistas and the unique feeling of flying. I was lucky to have had this experience. I appreciate all that was shown me in professionalism by Erin Coker and Bob Dicks and Mark Donohue, the festival president. Without their help, I would still be trying to catch my first hot air balloon ride. I am a confirmed follower and would jump at the chance to go up for another ride. And so should you.