I visited the Quechee [Vermont] Hot Air Balloon Festival this weekend with my brother, nephew Matt, and his friend Matthew and his father. The festival is a long running event up there; this was the 33rd annual version, but it was also my first. It’s a combination hot air balloon and arts festival.
Because hot air balloon flights are so weather dependent, the flights are scheduled for 6 AM and 6 in the evening, when the winds are most likely to be light. The balloons need enough of a breeze to push them away from each other, but heavier winds are hazardous to launch in since the balloons all have heavy duty propane burners that cast quite a flame.
We arrived late in the day Friday afternoon. As we were arriving at the KOA campsite– we had a rather nice little cabin–we could see balloons in the air. We got settled in, then headed over to the festival grounds.
One of the features of the opening night is “The Glow”– all the balloons are tied down to the ground at dusk, and the pilots all light off their burners to illuminate the balloon envelopes in the gathering dark.
They were also providing rides in a tethered balloon that goes up about 100 feet in the air. We got one of the rides, and all five of us piled into the basket. With 3 adults and 2 teenagers we were a relatively heavy bunch, and it took a little doing to get us off the ground, but it was worth while, as we got a really good view of the start of the glow.
I was laying in my sleeping bag Saturday morning, half asleep, when I gradually realized I was hearing a series of dull roars…sort of what you’d imagine a dragon would make. Suddenly I recognized the sound– it was the sound of a balloon heater, and it was firing right overhead. The balloons had been launched, and were right above us. I ran out of the cabin, and there they were.
The plan for Saturday was to visit Quechee Gorge, because the two boys wanted to go swimming in the fast moving water, then come back, have lunch, and relax for a while, before heading back for the 6 PM launch.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas. A wind kicked up, making it too dangerous to launch. We stayed until 7:30, but the wind remained stubborn.
It wasn’t a total loss though. While we were there, they made an announcement that there were open spaces for the launching next morning. The rides aren’t cheap– they run $230 for around 40 – 50 minutes– but they had been listed as sold out on the web site. After a few moments of hesitation, and after checking with Brian that he would be willing to get me to the grounds the next morning, I gathered up my courage and my credit card, and signed up.
The iPhone alarm went off at 4:30 in the dark. I was supposed to be at the festival grounds at 5:30, in order to sign a waiver and get my boarding pass. Fortunately, the wind had died down, and the skies were clear. Although not crowded, there were still a fair number of people there, even that early. After a little difficulty, I got my pass, picked up a cup of coffee, then waited for the “flight attendant” to appear. He arrived, and shortly thereafter, my three fellow passengers appeared.
Our pilot was Paul Sena, of Worthington Ballooning, based out of Worthington, MA. He and his crew unpacked the basket, mounted the burners to it, then tipped it over on its side. Then they stretched out the deflated balloon behind the basket, attached it, then set up a fan to start inflating the balloon.
The balloon filled slowly, and while it was filling, he invited us to step inside and look at it from the inside. Once the balloon was inflated, the started firing off bursts from the burners, and gradually, the top of the balloon started rising. It gained more and more buoyancy, until it pull the basket upright. Paul made a few last minute checks, then asked us to get in, one at a time. A few more blasts of the burner, and we were aloft.
Taking off in a balloon isn’t like taking off in an airplane. It’s very gentle– one moment the basket is solidly planted on the ground, and the next, you’re not firmly attached, the next, you’re a few inches off the ground, and then you’re in the air. It was utterly cool.
We were one of the first balloons in the air, so as we rose, we got a good view of the other balloons still setting up below us. The first moments are the most critical, since the pilot wants to make sure there’s no one above him, and no one coming up from below. Once the wind has started to take the balloons, they spread out a bit.
The wind was blowing south to north. Paul’s original plan was to stay as low as possible, and take advantage of the “sunrise effect” to get over the Quechee River, and hopefully, there would be a current of air to take us over the gorge. As we drifted south towards the river, it looked like we were going to run right into the trees. Instead, we just scraped the top of them, and then he dropped us down over the river in search of air currents.
Actually, he dropped us a couple of inches into the river, nearly on top of a very startled snapping turtle. The air currents he was looking for weren’t there, so we rose again, out of the river valley, and into the higher level currents that were taking all of the balloons to the north. We passed over a hay field next to the fair grounds, all of the balloons close together, but not uncomfortably so. We drifted north over the woods, with I-89 ahead of us.
Eventually, it became clear that we were all headed toward a large cleared area to the north-northwest. All the balloons were drifting in that direction. As we headed toward the clearing, Paul started dumping some of the hot air out of the top of the balloon, dropping us lower. Then, suddenly it became clear that the balloon ahead of us was rising up into us, so he blasted the heater, skipped up over the other balloon, then glided down into the grass, brushing through a small scrub pine in the process. Unlike the gentle ascent; landing was a little rough, since the balloon had forward momentum, and one edge of the basket caught on the ground. We bounced a couple of times, and were down.
We had to stay in the basket until Paul’s chase team caught up with us. He got us an inch or two off the ground, and they walked the balloon through the tall grass to an area where the grass was shorter, and access to the balloon would be easier. He had cautioned us to not get out until he dumped enough hot air; the loss of the weight of one person getting out could send the balloon back up again.
Once the support trailer arrived, the burner was detached from the basket, the balloon bundled into its bag, and we all piled into the truck for the trip back to the festival grounds. Once there, Paul provided some hors d’oeuvres and a champagne toast, and a recounting of the story of the first balloon flight by the Montgolfier brothers, and then it was time to go.
Yes, it was expensive, but yes, it was worth it.
I’ve now downloaded the data from the GPS tracker I was carrying with me, and mapped the pictures in Aperture. The purple line is my track over the morning; the red pushpins mark the locations where I took pictures. You can see where we took off from, at the bottom, to where we landed, at the top. (The part of the loop on the left hand side is from the ride back to the fairground).