By Jack Elliott
New Jersey’s hottest weekend of the year tourist-wise was Friday through Sunday, July 25-27, thanks to the 26th Annual New Jersey Festival of Ballooning at Solberg-Hunterdon Airport in Readington, N.J. The event attracted 175,000 people, making it the biggest tourist event in the state. The largest summertime balloon and music festival in North America attracted 125 balloons, some of them more than six stories high.
Officially known as the Quick Chek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning, the event, co-sponsored by PNC Bank, is a lot more than balloons. There were 250 vendor and food booths, concerts, rides for children, helicopter rides and airplane rides offered by the Solberg Aviation Co., owner and operator of the airport. Of course, spectators could buy balloon rides.
The festival didn’t open until 1 p.m. on Friday, but my personal experience started that morning, when my wife, Esta-Ann, and I rolled out of bed at 4 a.m. That morning, media people were offered flights as long as space was available. We had called in advance and were told commitments couldn’t be made because the exact number of participating balloons was unknown. We were advised to get to the airport by 6 o’clock for better chances.
We had been up in balloons a number of times before, but every balloon flight seems to be a more exhilarating experience than the previous ones. Balloons normally fly early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the winds are normally the calmest. A pre-flight briefing gave the weather report and other information about the morning flights.
While we were waiting to find out if we could get a flight, we got into a conversation with a balloon pilot who exuded enthusiasm, wearing a continuous broad smile.
When he had to leave to go out to the huge field where his crew was preparing to inflate his balloon, the man behind the briefing table advised us to go out to the area where the balloons were laid out and ask for Russ. When we found him, he pointed to the guy we had just been chatting with and said, “He can take two.”
While Esta-Ann normally shares in all my flying escapades, the best she was hoping for this time was to be allowed to go along in the chase vehicle that carries the crew and follows the balloon. After it lands, they deflate and repack it (usually with the help of local people who like to become part of the crew), and the chase vehicle brings the balloon, the passengers and the crew back to the airport. She was on cloud nine when Russ agreed to take us both.
Our pilot was Dick Young from Parsippany, N.J. He operates “A Beautiful Balloon LLC,” which gives rides and offers instruction and advertising flights. His wife, Mary Beth, is a balloon pilot as well, but she remained part of the ground crew for this flight.
Dick briefed us on every aspect of the flight and gave a thorough safety briefing, explaining the different types of landings we could conceivably experience, based on weather, terrain and other variable conditions, and exactly what to do in case of each possible type of landing, although normally landings are routine and soft.
The members of his crew were equally warm, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and friendly, some contributing preflight pointers. One of them told us that Dick took third place this year in the Long Jump, a long-range balloon competition. He flew from Lake Placid, N.Y., to Northampton, Mass., a distance of 147 miles. For most of the flight he flew at 12,000 feet, where the winds are stronger than at lower levels, but he flew as high as 13,999 feet, achieving speeds up to 55 miles an hour. He took first place in that competition in 2003 and finished third in three previous competitions.
The process of preparing for a flight starts by stretching the monstrous balloon out on the ground. Next, the crew blows air into it with a large electric fan until the balloon begins to take shape. Then they blow hot air into it fueled by a propane tank mounted in the gondola, which is tilted so the flame can be directed into the still prone balloon. When there is enough hot air, the balloon slowly rises to an upright position.
When we were all aboard the wicker gondola, including a third passenger, Carol Weed of Lyme, Ct.. who is one of Dick’s crewmembers, he fired some flame into the interior above our heads and the balloon became light enough to rise slowly from the ground. We rose straight up about a hundred feet or so, and with virtually no wind, hung without moving, looking down at balloons still being inflated. Among those below were a red barn (the Quick Chek Fresh Farm), Noah’s Ark, a Pepsi can, the PNC Bank American Flag (the world’s largest flying flag), a pair of bumble bees (separate balloons that fly together holding hands, joined by Velcro), the head of Darth Vader and the Energizer Bunny, whose long ears make him the tallest balloon in the world (at 166 feet high, its taller than the Statue of Liberty).
We peered down at the activity below for about a half hour. Then, Dick shot hot air up into the cavernous bag over our heads, and we gained altitude and began to move with the winds aloft. We drifted away from the airport over the lush green rolling hills of Hunterdon County, a breathtaking sight from the open air gondola.
After floating over the countryside for about 15 minutes, Dick began to look for a place to set down. We were over a pretty, upscale community. It had rained the night before, and Dick didn’t want to land on grass and get the balloon wet. He decided the best choice was to land in the street, with houses on both sides, and we floated down.
Dick dropped lines to the ground crew that had followed our flight in the chase car, so they could guide us to avoid young trees, and we settled down in the middle of the street. Our landing was so soft we could hardly feel it.
Children and parents came pouring out of the houses, responding excitedly when Dick asked if they would like to go for a tethered ride. He gave rides to about 20 children and a number of adults while crewmembers held on to the lines to prevent them from drifting away.
As is the tradition, when we landed the crew popped open a bottle of champagne. Legend has it that in the early days of ballooning, when people saw this huge thing come down on their property, they felt threatened and attacked the balloonists. To make themselves welcome, the balloonists opened a bottle of champagne and offered it to their hosts.
But Dick and his crew went further. Besides popping the champagne, they opened up a table and put out a festive spread including orange juice, soft drinks, peanut butter cookies, homemade cranberry bread, crumb cake, an assortment of crackers, fruit and more. Cups were imprinted with balloon pictures and inscribed with appropriate sayings: “Friendly Landings,” “Gentle Winds” and “Soft Landings.”
The picnic began with a champagne toast, after which Dick read the Balloonist’s Prayer:
The winds have welcomed you with softness,
The sun has blessed you with his warm hands.
You have flown so high and so well
That God has joined you and your laughter
And He has set you gently back again.
Into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
When they finished the goodies, the youngsters pitched in to help squeeze the air out of the balloon and repack it. With that, the party was over and the crew, along with their passengers, headed back to the airport.
While a balloon flight is always something special, the heart of a balloon festival is the mass balloon ascensions that take place each morning and evening, weather permitting. It starts with dozens—sometimes hundreds—of balloons stretched out on the ground. As the crews blow them up, they slowly begin to rise from the ground, like a horde of sleeping giants springing to life. One by one, they gently rise into the sky, creating a colorful spectacle.
The festival included a competition called the Hare and the Hound Race. One balloon, the hare, takes off and flies away, usually flying for 25 or 30 minutes, changing altitudes along the way. With each change of altitude, the wind direction changes, making it harder for the hounds that follow to pick up its trail.
Once the hare lands and lays out a big “X” on the ground, it can elect to remain tethered on the spot or be packed up and driven back to where it started. The hounds take off to find the big X, dropping a bean bag when they find it. The balloon that drops the bean bag closest to the X is the winner. A Hare and the Hound Race was run Saturday and Sunday morning. Bart Greentiens of Stroudsburg, Penn., won the first, and Martin Gilbert of Ashland, Va., won the second.
Five concerts featured popular artists Demi Lovato, Gin Blossoms, Paul Rogers, Menudo and Kenny Loggins.
The airport’s main runway and taxiway were lined with vendor booths and tents offering everything from T-shirts to massages and hot dogs and steaks. A NASA exhibit trailer featured unusual photographs of space and space vehicles and men on the moon. The highlight of the exhibit was a moon rock visitors could touch.
Children had their choice of a variety of carnival rides as well as a half dozen or more special acts and attractions. During a balloon glow, flames shot up into several colorful balloons at night, lighting them up in a spectacular fashion. Fireworks also lent the festival a grand carnival atmosphere.