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Paul Clark photo
Captain Danny Smith flies Tom Mackie’s balloon.
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Paul Clark photo
Subject to change
Mark Turner of Asheville Hot Air Balloons looks up at the darkening skies over Hominy Valley on April 6, 2014. There's a saying that it's better to be on the ground wishing you'd flown than be in the air and wishing you hadn't.
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Art Anderson photo
Hot Air Balloon Glow 2012 at the Harmony Jubilee held in Fitzgerald, Ga. The festival celebrates the harmony between the town’s post-Civil War Union and Confederate soldiers.
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Paul Clark photo
Laying it all out
Asheville Hot Air Balloons pilot Rick Bowers explains in-air precautions to passengers before flight at Hominy Valley on April 6, 2014.
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Tom Mackie photo
Putting a ring on it
Justin Rolfe proposes to Ashley Jones over the Hominy Valley near Asheville, N.C.
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Onward to the sea
Balloons take off over Helen, Ga., as part of the Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race and Festival.
The August morning dawned clear and beautiful, as Ashley Jones and Justin Rolfe left the chalet they’d rented near Asheville, N.C., and headed for a coffee shop west of the city. Jones didn’t know what to expect. Rolfe had said little more about the day’s events other than that the couple would be getting up early and going somewhere special.
Meanwhile, Tom Mackie, a gregarious hot air balloon pilot and flying enthusiast, was waiting. Jones’ surprise was a flight over the mountains. She was delighted.
At the launch site in Hominy Valley, Jones and Rolfe climbed into a big basket beneath a bright balloon of iridescent colors. Another brilliantly colored hot air balloon was taking off nearby. “One second we were watching the other balloon take off, and then Tom’s hitting the burner and we started to rise really quickly,” Jones said. “I just remember the view and we’re lifting, lifting, lifting. There was mist on the mountains. It was gorgeous.”
It had been a special getaway for the Charlotte-area couple. Not only had Rolfe been crewing with Hendrick Motorsports at Bristol Motor Speedway, but, as of that weekend, he and Jones had been together for five years. Once the balloon reached cruising height above the valley, Jones gave Mackie her camera and asked him to take a few shots of her and her beau.
“Tom gave me the camera back, and I was starting to put it away when Justin said, wait a minute, why don’t you have him take a couple more of us?” Jones said. “I thought that was so adorable, that it must have been a romantic moment for our five-year anniversary. Tom started taking pictures, and then Justin all of a sudden got down on one knee and pulled a ring out of his pocket.”
Jones, who will become Ashley Rolfe this summer on July 19, marveled at how the ring glittered in the early morning sunlight. While the guys looked for wildlife over the side, she started snapping pictures like crazy to send photos of her ring to her female friends. Being hundreds of feet in the air made the experience all the more heady. “I don’t think Justin could have planned it any better,” she said. “And Tom helped him pull it off.”
Nearly everyone Steve Lambert, director of Balloons Over Anderson, takes up into the air is on his or her first flight. “It’s one of those things that some people have got to do, and they’ve been saving for years, because it’s expensive,” Lambert said. “It’s one time in their life, and they will never do it again.”
Ballooning is for those passionate about flight, those drawn to the ethereal beauty of long-range views and the serenity of wind power.
“When you take off, you can’t tell you’ve left the ground, because you’re floating,” said Phylliss Barnard of Asheville Hot Air Balloons. “You don’t have a sense of motion, because you’re moving with the wind. If you’re flying over a quarry, you see huge trucks for hauling rock, and they look like toys. Houses and cars on the road, when you’re flying high, get very small. Cows look like little toy cows.”
Pilots usually meet passengers early in the morning, because the first couple of hours of daylight are usually the calmest, wind-wise. Depending on the size of the balloon, the envelope can weigh several hundred pounds, so passengers often help the crew stretch it out on the ground.
“Almost always, the passengers want to be involved because they want to learn. They want to be able to touch the balloon and figure out how it works,” Lambert said. “They’re always asking you questions—what’s this, what’s that, how do you steer the balloon? They want to get involved.”
Crewmembers inflate the balloon with gas-powered fans and tie on the basket. Once there’s sufficient air in the envelope, they start heating the air with propane gas. Gradually, the balloon starts to stand, a glorious sight that is among passengers’ favorite memories of the day.
Mackie takes passengers as high as 7,000 feet, but he’s found that most people like to stay right above the treetops because it gives them the sense that they’re floating. Higher up, it’s harder to get a sense of movement, though the view can be much more grand.
There is a majesty to the mountains, both beneath the balloon and in the distance. The air is crisp, the skies are clear and the views go on forever. Mackie has ballooned all over the world, and he considers Asheville the prettiest place he flies. Barnard loves them as well. “The views here in Asheville are absolutely gorgeous,” she said. “The higher you go, the more mountain ranges you see. I like to describe it that it’s like being in the ocean—you look out and you see wave after wave, only here it’s wave after wave of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And there’s no motion, so you’ve got that whole peaceful thing.”
Though balloon flights are not exactly cheap, they are relatively easy to find via independent contractors and at hot air balloon festivals. Most festivals in the Southeast have inexpensive tethered rides that rise to about 100 feet and last a few minutes.
“A lot of people have the attitude that it’s going to be this thrilling thing, but it’s not exactly like going to the fair and getting on a ride,” Barnard said. “That’s why we don’t like to use the word ‘ride.’ These are flights with commercial certified pilots. It’s a very gentle experience.”
Mackie pilots for Asheville Hot Air Balloons, but he has his own company too, Fly A Balloon. He has been a pilot of some sort for 33 years. He flies 747s for a living (mostly Asian routes) and has flown helicopters, gliders and hang gliders. “You name it, I’ve flown it, except the space shuttle,” he said. It’s not hard to learn to fly a hot air balloon, “but I always tell people that it is more an art form than a skill,” he said. “You have to develop a feel for the air. You learn how to fly the winds on a microscopic level. It’s almost like sky sailing. It’s completely different from other forms of aviation.”
The Federal Aviation Administration issues licenses to hot air balloon operators. The training can cost several thousand dollars and take many months. One first must have an airman’s certificate or a license to fly other aircraft. One has to be at least 16, and though one doesn’t need a medical certificate, one can’t have a condition that would prevent from operating the craft safely. At least 10 hours of flight training that includes six flights with an instructor, two flights lasting an hour, one controlled ascent to 2,000 feet and one solo flight are required. There’s the written FAA test, as well as a practical knowledge test by a FAA flight examiner or inspector. A private pilots’ license entitles one to carry passengers but not for money.
And money is a consideration. Good used systems can be had for $10,000-$15,000, but new ones cost several times that. There’s propane to buy, crew to hire, and the truck and trailer needed for hauling. Mackie has two balloons—one that cost $10,000 and one that cost $60,000. The latter is big—160,000 cubic feet—and strong enough to carry him and seven passengers. “Basically, it can lift my Suburban,” he said.
Hot air balloons can be built to just about any size, so there’s no “average” balloon. But a typical balloon about 70 feet tall packs approximately 90,000 cubic feet of air into the balloon, called the “envelope.” Baskets are usually made of wicker and rattan, natural fibers that have some bounce when the balloon touches down. On board there’s an altimeter to tell a pilot how high the balloon is climbing, as well as a vertical speed indicator that shows how quickly the balloon is moving up or down. A GPS device indicates how fast it is going laterally and in what direction. An envelope temperature sensor measures the heat inside the balloon, giving the pilot a baseline by which to gauge changes needed to sustain and change buoyancy.
The night before flights, pilots check wind data. The morning of the launch, they release a helium balloon called a pibal to get a read on conditions—and cancel if the winds aren’t right. “But you just don’t know until you’re up there,” Mackie said. “When you’re flying a balloon, it’s not static. It’s very dynamic. We are seeking a different course all the time. You can get pretty busy in a balloon.”
Pilots constantly are scanning the skies for indications of which way the winds are blowing, but clues can come from below as well. Smoke from chimneys and moving treetops are good indicators, as are ripples on a lake. Pilots can’t control which way the wind is blowing, but they can seek different altitudes for currents that will push them in the directions they want. They can slow an ascent or begin a descent by pulling on a parachute vent on top of the balloon to let some of its hot air out.
“I always describe the feeling (of being in the air) like that ride at Disney World, Peter Pan’s Flight, where you’re flying over the town. It kind of feels like that,” said Debby Porter, co-founder of the hot air balloon festival Balloons Over Anderson. “You just see all the treetops, the houses, the lay of the land. You can see deer running, and dirty swimming pools. People come out and wave and holler at you. Dogs will bark at you. When people see you landing, they help. You get to meet a lot of nice people.”
Landing a hot air balloon is an imperfect science. Mackie tells his passengers their general direction and can predict within a few miles where they’ll touch down, but there’s no landing pad with a big X on it. That’s why balloons have support teams. Chase crews follow the balloon on country roads, staying in communication with the pilot over radios. If they can, they’ll contact a property owner when a balloon is ready to land to get permission. If not, they’ll leave a card behind saying they were there.
“All the pilots like flying here,” Porter said. “It’s not real congested, and there are a lot of good landing spots. You fly in bigger areas, and it’s harder to find places to land.”
When Lambert operated his commercial hot air balloon business in Orlando and flew tourists around the Disney World area, “I’d have to put 100 miles on my van to drive out to the countryside,” he said. “It would take four hours-plus to do a one-hour balloon ride. Up here (in the Upstate), because we have such a good network of roads, we can do the entire thing in two and a half to three hours and never put more than 35 miles on my vehicle. It makes it good to chase balloons here.”
Hot air balloon festivals offer people a chance to see balloons up close, as well as an opportunity to meet the pilots and learn more about the sport of competitive ballooning. The Balloon Federation of America lists 250 pilots in its competition division database. Sam Parks is president of the federation, which sanctions events by which pilots can gain points to become their state’s hot air balloon champion. State champs go on to the national finals, held this year in Longview, Texas from July 28-Aug. 3. The national champion will compete in the World Hot Air Balloon Championship in Rio Claro, Brazil.
Before each sanctioned event, the “balloonmeister,” as the balloon organizer is called, selects one or more tasks for the pilots to do. One popular event is the “fly in,” in which pilots taking off from various places finesse the winds to get as close to a target as they can. Another is the “hare and hound,” in which pilots chase a lead balloon and land as close to it as they can. In another, they try to maneuver their balloons to a stand high above the festival grounds, pulling a ring off of it like a kid on a merry-go-round. Good performance leads to points.
“You have to use the winds, since there’s no steering wheel,” said Parks, balloonmeister of Aloft, a hot air balloon festival in South Carolina, and Carolina BalloonFest in North Carolina. Pilots use their altimeters and GPS devices to track their direction, ascending and descending to find the winds that will push them toward their targets. Only by trial and error do they get to where they’re going, Parks said. The most skilled among them make the fewest errors.
Many competitive pilots don’t take paying passengers, but many do to help pay the freight for their love of being in the air. The experience is something they never get over. “You are literally floating through the sky,” Lambert said. “You can be flying at 500 feet and see someone walking out in the front yard and you can talk to them without yelling. People wave and talk to you as you’re flying by. It’s a calming, serene thing.”
Balloon festivals in the Southeast
Aloft • aloft.org
Formerly known as Freedom Weekend Aloft, Aloft launches some 70 balloons over the Greenville, S.C., area during Memorial Day weekend, making it the largest balloon festival in South Carolina.
- May 23-26 • Heritage Park, Simpsonville, SC
- Admission: $16 advance/$20 before 4 p.m./$25 after 4 p.m. Children under 36 inches free.
- To ride: $200 per person. Tethered rides are $12
Balloons Over Anderson • balloonsoveranderson.org
Some two dozen balloons rise over Anderson, S.C.’s skies in this festival started and run by hot air ballooning enthusiasts. Especially popular is the Balloon Glow, held at night so that the balloons light up like softly glowing lanterns.
- Oct. 10-12 • Anderson Civic Center, Anderson, S.C.
- Admission: Free
- To ride: $200 per person. Tethered rides are $10, $5 for 12 years old and younger.
Carolina BalloonFest • carolinaballoonfest.com
Begun 41 years ago, Carolina BalloonFest is the nation’s second-oldest hot air balloon festival and the largest of its kind in North Carolina. More than 50 balloons take off over Statesville Regional Airport.
- Oct. 17-19 • Statesville Regional Airport, Statesville, NC
- Admission: Check website for ticket prices
- To ride: $225 per person. Tethered rides are $10, $5 for 12 years old and younger.
Harmony Jubilee • harmonyjubilee.com
Fitzgerald, Ga., celebrates the harmony between the town’s post-Civil War Union and Confederate soldiers.
- Nov. 7-9 • Paulk Park, Fitzgerald, Ga.
- Admission: Free Nov. 7 and 9; $5 adults, $2 children, free 3 and under Nov. 8
- To ride: $200 per person. Tethered rides are $10 adult, $5 child
Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival • helenballoon.com
The South’s oldest balloon event and the country’s only long-distance balloon race happens in this Alpine-like village that has tons to do and see between balloon launches.
- June 5-7 • Downtown Helen, Ga.
- Admission: Free
- To ride: $300-$350 per person. Tethered rides are $10.
Owl-O-Ween Hot Air Balloon Festival • owl-o-ween.com
This Atlanta-area festival attracted so many people last year that organizers have doubled the footprint this year.
- Oct. 25-26
- Kennesaw State University Sports & Rec Park, Kennesaw, GA
- Admission: $15 adults, $10 children under 12, free children under 3
- To ride: Tethered rides are $10 adult, $5 child
Tunes & Balloons Fireworks Finale • cherryblossom.com
Celebrating the blooming of more than 350,000 cherry trees in Macon, Ga., the International Cherry Blossom Festival concludes every year with its Tunes & Balloons Fireworks Finale.
- Event date not yet set. Festival is March 20-29, 2015
- Middle Georgia State College, Macon, Ga.
- Admission: $5, children under 6 free
- To ride: Tethered rides are $10 adults, $5 children