It was a “long sigh” sort of moment for me, seeing the beautiful scenery and feeling the peace of the silence surround us. I had tried three previous times to get to where I was (once in Orlando, once in Maryland, and the day before in Hammondsport), but balloon rides are very much dependent upon the wind and I always seemed to be unlucky when it came to the conditions.
As with most things, the initial elusiveness made the sigh that much sweeter.
Let me begin by blowing your mind: In general, window-unit air conditioners put forth anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 BTUs/hour. The propane burners on a hot air balloon? They start at 7 to 10 million BTUs/hour.
And I could certainly feel the heat as the tallest man in the basket, the burners shooting flames up into the “envelope”- the official term for the bag that holds the hot air (see diagram below). When I arrived at the field and the pilot began instructing me on how to start the inflation process using a small fan, the simplicity of the operation overwhelmed me.
There’s no steering or motor – it’s literally a wicker basket suspended from a parachute, not much more. The balloon can only travel as fast as the wind is blowing that day, and landing is truly a “this spot looks good” type of operation, based solely on wind speed and surrounding obstacles (we attempted to land several times before we were able to set her down).
Open fields, farms, and deserted lots are all common landing areas, and some land owners are more welcoming than others. Carrying along a few bottles of champagne is a tradition in ballooning, the booze used for a celebratory toast upon landing as well as to beg forgiveness from upset farmers. While most welcome the sight of a hot air balloon, some don’t take too kindly to unapproved landings that scare their cattle.
Takeoff is definitely interesting because of the aforementioned simplicity – the balloon was literally tied to the truck to prevent it from floating off the ground before all of us had loaded in. Once we rose above the treeline everything settled down, similar to the way in which parasailing becomes a peaceful adventure. The pilot can’t do much about the speed or sideways movement, but the altitude is under his direct control.
We didn’t just take off and drift high into the sky – we cruised a few feet over the treeline, looking down into the forest and seeing the white-tailed deer hopping through the dew-drenched morning. Then we hit Keuka Lake, slowly floating past the fishing boats and the flocks of ducks. Balloons can apparently do a touch-and-go on water given the right conditions, but the wind kept us moving and we skimmed over the surface, the bottom of the basket not more than three or four feet from the water.
From there we “pulled up,” the hills and vineyards of wine country now coming into view below us. You’ll see I was able to snap some pretty amazing photos. We are so accustomed overcoming our boundries that we sometimes lose sight of the feats right in front of us. When I was a couple thousand feet in the air over wine country and I stopped and thought about the fact that I was standing in a wicker basket built with two by fours and above me was a scorching 7-million btu burner firing flames up into a parachute of air with no control over which direction I go, I guess you could say I was a little impressed, both with the stature of the experience as well as with myself. Stay calm, I thought, and hold on tight.
This is life.
The Legend: Our crew from Liberty Balloon had some ridiculous stories of ballooner/farmer interactions – both good and bad – but perhaps the most insane is the folklore surrounding the origins of the champagne tradition: It was initially carried by passengers to prove they were from this planet. One of the first hot air balloons (1780s in France) apparently had a little problem upon landing in a farmer’s field. Having never seen anything like it, the countrymen thought they were witnessing an invasion from outer space and charged the balloon with pitchforks. Tales of this attack prompted pilots to carry French champagne along with them as a way of verifying their identities not only as scientists from France, but as men of this earth.
Weekend Getaway: Given its reasonable driving distance from the major northeast cities, a balloon ride over Hammondsport can be a great nucleus for a weekend getaway (and there’s always the Keuka Lake wine country to explore if the wind doesn’t cooperate).
The octagonal Black Sheep Inn Bed and Breakfast offers a package that includes the balloon ride, a 2-night stay with breakfast, two tickets to the Curtiss Museum, and a wine country picnic basket filled with local meats, cheeses, and breads ($550/person). Innkeepers Debbie and Marc graduated from the New England Culinary Institute and Kent State University’s Interior Design program, respectively – a pretty good combo for a bed and breakfast, for sure. They are in the process of putting in a spa, so be sure to ask about its progress when you call.
Budget Option: Balloon rides can be pricey (mine was $240, although I’ve seen them cheaper in other areas), but those on a tighter budget can still get up in the air via a scenic flight. Costa Flying offers all different options, from an 8-minute flight over Keuka Lake ($25) to 2-hour journeys up north over Niagra Falls ($200). I like the shorter flight as a quick Saturday morning idea to kick start the weekend, the duration suitable for those looking for a new experience that doesn’t hijack the wallet or schedule.
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