This past weekend, I visited the Quechee Vermont Balloon Festival for the second time. I had such a great time the first time, I eagerly agreed when my brother asked again this year. This time, I bought a ticket ahead of time for my second balloon ride. We got up to Vermont early Friday evening, and spent the evening by the campfire. My ride was scheduled for Saturday morning, and the weather was perfect–just a touch of fog over the water, but clear and little wind. We got to the festival grounds shortly after 5, and after a short wait, got my wristband, and was in. I walked over to the festival office, signed the waiver, and got my boarding pass.
I found that my pilot was going to be Chris Ritland of Green Mountain Ballooning, flying “Jackie” (named because it looks like a jack ‘o’ lantern). Chris is from the area; he first started coming to the festival when he was 8, joined a chase crew a few years later, and decided after his freshman year in college to get his pilot’s license. Once Chris’s father collected my fellow passengers and me, he took us over to meet Chris and his assistant Evan. They were just taking the basket off its trailer, and taking the balloon envelope out of its bag. The basket was set on its side, the envelope was stretched out over the ground, attached, and his assistants held the mouth of the balloon open while a fan inflated it.
Slowly, the balloon inflated. Once it had some air in it, Chris started firing the burner to heat up the air inside. As the air warmed, the envelope started rising, and finally pulled the balloon upright, and it was time to get in, We were in tight quarters, with another balloon right next to us. He had his assistants and some spectators hold down the balloon as he continued to heat the air. Finally it was ready to go, and off we went!
We were just rising over some of the other balloons when one of them took off right in front of us. My brother Brian told me later that it looked like we were going to hit each other, but the other balloon blasted its heater to zip up, while Chris dumped some air to dive underneath it. He later pointed out that while the pilot doesn’t have much directional control, because the balloon is steered by the wind, he does have very good altitude control.
Soon, we’d left the festival grounds behind, and were moving over the Quechee Falls, Simon Pearce restaurant, and the newly rebuilt covered bridge. From there, we continued to the south, over the Quechee Gorge. We were alongside, or in the river valley for much of the trip, with a couple of other balloons in the general area, but not too close. At one point, the yellow balloon ahead of us actually dipped into the river, then rose, leaving a long stream of water underneath.
As we headed south, the Hartland Dam came into view. A couple of other balloons appeared to be settling in to the north of it, we ended up in a very small slot of a road just on the other side of it. It looked awfully small, and the trees on the other side were very close, but Chris skimmed the tops of the trees on the near side of the space, and dropped us down neatly by the side of the road. We landed with a bit of a thump, but it was actually a bit gentler than last year’s landing, since the wind wasn’t dragging us along. Soon the chase crew arrived, “Jackie” was packed up, and we drove back to the festival grounds for the traditional champagne toast.
Here’s the GPS track of the flight, and the trip back to the festival fairgrounds. As you can see, we spent much of our time near the river
After the flight, Brian, John, the boys and I visited Quechee Gorge. It was weird being on the bridge after flying over it. We walked down into the gorge, then came back to the festival for lunch and a skydiving demonstration.
We capped off the day with a game of miniature golf and ice cream. As we were finishing up, the balloons were flying overhead. It was a good end to a great day.