I first went to the Quechee Balloon Festival in 2012, with my brother and nephew Matt, who were accompanying one Matt’s friends and father to the festival. I managed to get a balloon ride, and liked it enough to do it again with them the following year.
Since then, they haven’t gone again, and I’ve wanted to go back. I figured this year would be a good year to combine a balloon flight with a short motorcycle tour. So I booked a flight for Friday night, and made motel reservations for Friday and Saturday, in case of weather trouble that would require re-booking the flight.
I left home around noon on Friday, and ran into heavy traffic in Boston and on Interstate 93 up through New Hampshire. By the time I was on I-89, I’d lost over an hour, and didn’t dare switch over to the side roads.
I did eventually get to the motel barely in time to check in, bring the bags up to the room and switch my boots for sneakers, before heading off in search of the festival grounds.
Despite being told to be there by 5 (which is why I was hurrying), they didn’t start processing reservations until 5:30. Finally, after signing off on a lot of paperwork, I got my boarding pass, and met Katherine, from the crew, who took me down to the balloon.
My pilot was Walt Rudy, of Aloft Horizons based in Ohio, and his crew chief was his wife Deb. I met my fellow passengers, and together, we helped get the balloon set up.
The balloon envelope is stored tightly packed inside a big canvas bag. It has to be pulled out to its full height on the ground, unbound, and then spread out flat on the ground.
In the meantime, the basket is laid sideways on the ground, and the envelope fastened to it. Then it was time to wait for the wind to drop, and the festival’s “balloonmeister” to give the ok to launch. It took a while for the winds to abate, but finally we got the go ahead.
The first step in getting a balloon aloft is to “cold inflate” it. The mouth of the balloon is held open by a pair of people — I was one — while fans blow air into the balloon. First there is a ripple of a bubble, and soon enough, while still lying on the ground, it’s nearly its full round shape.
Next, the pilot starts to heat the air, first with a couple of short bursts from the burner, then with longer ones. The envelope develops lift pretty quickly, and starts to pull the basket to a standing position. At that point, the three of us piled in — there is no graceful way to do it–and we sort of “idled” for a moment while Walt got the lay of the land. He added just enough heat to get us just off the ground, and his ground assistants walked the basket a few steps to get clear of our neighbors, and then he blasted the burners again and we were off.
We were probably the fourth or fifth balloon to head out. All the balloons headed south-easterly, over the Quechee Dam, Simon Pearce factory and covered bridge, and toward the Ottauquechee River. Walt tried to drop us down over the river, hoping to pick up a current of air, but the wind didn’t cooperate. We did float over the Quechee Gorge and past the bridge. At various points we could see our reflection, or the reflection of another balloon below us.
Floating in a hot air balloon is very different from flying in an airplane. You’re in the open, for one thing, and you can feel the open air around you. You can turn around and look in any direction. It was crystal clear, and we had the setting sun behind us, so the colors ahead were vibrant, while the balloons behind were backlit. And it’s mostly quiet and serene, punctured by the roar of the burners when it’s time to gain or maintain altitude.
We flew over a bend in the river, and a few farms. At one point, we passed over a stable, and Walt called down to the horses. It was peaceful and quiet, just the four of us in the basket, and the other balloons around us as we floated over the forest.
Around the half hour mark, Walt was starting to look for places to land. We would see little oases of flat ground in the middle of the forest. I could see he had his eye on one likely spot, but the winds would not cooperate, so we hopped over a hill, plowing through some tree tops, before he spotted an open field right beside Route 5, and dropped us gently to the ground.
We met the homeowners, and their children, who were rather wide-eyed about it. Walt helped them up into the basket so they could get a sense of what it was like, while the envelope deflated. The chase crew arrived only a few moments after we landed, and we had to quickly pack up the balloon – we’d taken off late, and had to get back to the festival for the Glow. As a parting gift, Walt left the homeowners a bottle of champagne, a ballooning tradition.
After the evening flights, the balloons come back to the Festival grounds for the Glow. By this time it’s dark, and the balloons are re-inflated, tethered in a row, and then the pilots fire off their burners in sync to light the envelopes. It’s very pretty.
Walt’s crew was a little short-handed, so Steve, one of the other passengers, and I helped set the balloon back up. Once the balloon was re-inflated, I got out the camera to take some pictures and video:
After The Glow, I helped Walt and his crew pack the balloon back up. It had to be deflated, the envelope bound up and packed into its bag, and the basket put on a platform on the back of the van.
My plans for Saturday were pretty loose. I wanted to visit the Simon Pearce glass factory again, and then I intended to simply follow Route 4 West on the motorcycle, and see where it took me. During breakfast, Walt called me and asked me if I could drop off the boarding pass from the night before so he could turn it into the festival.
My first stop of the morning was the village of Quechee. There is a dam and a waterfall and a covered bridge there, which I’d flown over the night before. Next to the dam is an old mill, which is now the home of the Simon Pearce store, restaurant and glass factory. They make fine glassware right on the premises. The store is at street level, and the glass factory is at river level.
Once I’d picked up a vase for my mother, it was time to hit the road. Route 4 in Vermont is a really nice road for motorcycles — nice scenery, some curvy sections, not too busy, and in reasonable condition. There wasn’t anything in particular I wanted to see, I was just out for the ride.
Serendipity struck though; as I approached the junction of Route 106A, I saw signs directing me to Plymouth Notch, the birthplace of President Calvin Coolidge. “Why not”, I said, so I followed 106A, a fun road in of itself, to the Coolidge homestead.
There’s a small museum, detailing Coolidge’s life, and then you can walk through the village of Plymouth Notch, which, paving aside, is pretty much the way it was a century ago. There is a General Store, operated by his father, the Coolidge Birthplace, which is a small house attached to the back of the store, the house where Coolidge grew up, and where he took the oath of office, and the barn owned by his grandfather, part original and part a restoration. I joined a guided tour and got to see the insides of all these buildings.
After leaving Plymouth Notch, I headed back up to Route 4, and continued to follow it westward, to the fringes of Rutland, where I turned around, and headed back to the Festival.
When I got there, I found Steve and Kathy from the night before were there too, and together we helped get the balloon set up again, and helped this evening’s passengers into the basket. I was also grabbing shots of the other balloons preparing to take off. Deb offered me the chance to join the chase crew, and I accepted. I did have time before we left to get a few more pictures of the festival.
The chase crew drives the van to where the balloon lands. With luck — and we were lucky this evening — it will get there just as, or slightly before, the balloon lands. Deb, Walt, and their assistant Katherine are all from Ohio, so we had a local friend of theirs, Tiffany, with us, to navigate the roads. There was a GPS beacon aboard the balloon and Katharine and Tiffany were both tracking it; Tiffany chose the route to get us to where they anticipated the balloon would land. This time they forecast it pretty closely; as we traveled along Route 5 we saw the balloon come over the hill; Deb parked the van, and we got out to run to where the balloon was landing.
The first order of business when the balloon touched ground was to get rid of its buoyancy. Walt continued to vent hot air out the top of the balloon, and the ground crew held the basket down. If necessary, the pilot will hover an inch or so off the ground while the crew walks the basket to a more convenient spot. Passengers are not allowed to leave the basket until the pilot says so — to lose the weight of the passenger suddenly could cause the balloon to shoot back up. Once Walt gave the go ahead, we helped the passengers out of the basket.
Once the passengers were out, one crew member pulled on a rope attached to the top of the balloon. Gradually, the hot air cooled and escaped, and the envelope settled onto the ground. As it did, the basket was laid on its side, the mouth of the envelope closed, and we started to gather up the fabric of the envelope into a long thick line to drive the rest of the air out. Velcro straps were bound around the envelope at intervals to keep it tidy and compact. Once the envelope was bound up, we got it into its bag. It’s a lot of work, and fortunately the homeowner where the balloon landed helped out. He had a couple of little kids with him and Deb put them to work sitting on top of the envelope as it was put into the bag to drive the air out. Once the balloon is in the bag, we heaved it up into the truck, then hauled the basket up onto a platform on the back of the van and fastened it down.
Once everything was packed away, Walt had a short champagne ceremony with the passengers and homeowners, where he told the story of how the Montgolfier brothers invented hot air balloons, and started bringing champagne with them to reassure the people where their balloons were landing that these strange devices were friendly. Story told, he poured out a cup of champagne for everyone, and left a bottle with the homeowners.
We then headed back to the festival grounds for the Saturday night Glow. Since takeoff hadn’t been as late as our flight, we had a a little more time to get back and get set back up. Once again I helped get the balloon inflated; once it was up, I walked around to to get some more pictures.
After the glow, I helped pack up the balloon one last time, and then it was time to say goodbye to Walt and Deb, Tiffany and Katherine.
The ride back the next day was uneventful. Since I was in no particular hurry this time, I took Route 4 back through New Hampshire. The weather and scenery were great. Route 4 ended at I-93; after a few miles of backed up traffic I got off the interstate and onto Route 3A. While on this road I made an interesting discovery: I was passing along the a river, and I had a nice view of it from the bike, so I stopped to get some pictures of it. I walked back nearly a mile, but found no spot where I had a clear shot of the river; my mind must have stitched together the flashes of the river as I rode by into one continuous vista that didn’t really exist.
I got home just before four, just in time to run some errands. Overall, I had a great time. I loved being in a balloon again, and it was fun helping out, despite the fact that it’s surprisingly physical work. It was good taking the bike on a longer trip, and hopefully I can work my way up to even longer ones.