If you are of a certain age, you will remember this song by the 5th Dimension: “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon? We could float among the stars together, you and I, for we can fly we can fly.” Well, those lyrics came to mind recently when I embarked upon my very first hot air balloon ride.
TAKING TO THE SKIES
The history of hot air ballooning dates back to 1783, when a hand-fed fire whisked two men on a rudimentary circular platform an estimated 500 feet in the air from a launch spot in Paris, landing in a deserted area some 25 minutes later approximately five and a half miles way.
That same year, the first gas (hydrogen-powered) balloon also took flight from Paris, flying 25 miles in a little over two hours. The success of this latter flight transformed hot air ballooning into a preferred mode of air travel—albeit only for those who were well-to-do, due to the time and costs involved—until 1903, when the Wright brothers introduced the world to the airplane.
In the decades to follow, many a scientist, physicist and flight aficionado have created and attempted their own ballooning methodologies and flying material, each with various degrees of success. But it wasn’t until 1960, when a man named Paul Yost developed a successful propane burner system and balloon construction method that hot air sport ballooning really took off (pardon the pun!). This lofty flight of fancy has continued to soar high ever since.
STILL FLYING HIGH
Today you can find a myriad of ballooning clubs, organizations, events and competitions across the country, including perhaps the most well-known, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M., the city known as the “Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World.”
Three ballooning cultural institutions of note include the National Balloon Museum and Ballooning Hall of Fame in Indianola, Iowa, the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum in Albuquerque, N.M., and the Costen Cultural Exhibit.
The Costen Cultural Exhibit, titled “To God Be the Glory,” is named after Bill Costen, former professional NFL player and CEO of Sky Endeavors LLC, a hot air balloon company dealing in sales, instruction, rides and promotions. Costen later became the first African-American commercial balloon pilot in the country.
The exhibit is unique in that it is a traveling entity designed to illustrate the many inventions and science, aviation, entertainment, civil rights, music, sports, military, historical and other accomplishments of Americans, with an emphasis on African-Americans, through a stunning collection of over 2,000 memorabilia, rare photographs, biographical descriptions, artifacts and ephemera.
National Balloon Museum and Ballooning Hall of Fame
The Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum
The Costen Cultural Exhibit
The Great Midwest Balloon Fest
THE GREAT MIDWEST BALLOON FEST
This past October at the Great Midwest Balloon Fest in Bonner Springs, Kan., I was privileged to be invited to soar high above the ground with over 50 hot air balloons in the Wonder Bread Hot Air Balloon.
The story here is unique, in that the founder of the Wonder Bread Company chose to name his enterprise after seeing the “wonder” of hundreds of hot air balloons gliding across the sky during the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Speedway in 1921. He took those specks of red, yellow and blue and used them as his now iconic logo, and in 2001, to celebrate Wonder’s 80th anniversary, the company purchased and named the balloon.
Measuring 90 feet high and 75 feet wide when fully inflated, the balloon is large enough to hold more than 90,000 basketballs, with a four-person basket (the typical balloon basket size) in which I flew with the pilot and his teenage granddaughter one spectacular fall morning. To the delight of folks gazing upward from the roadways, private homes, restaurants and hotel parking lots, we leisurely and majestically ascended and descended from treetop level to 1,500 feet above the picturesque Kansas landscape, where we could see for miles in all directions.
Some of the pilots were actually participating in the Balloon Federation of America Balloon Race, one of several competitions taking place all over the country each year. Despite the word “race,” they are really a variety of aerial challenges, including a Target Toss, where a weighted bag is dropped as close as possible to a large, maybe 25-foot-by-25-foot X marked in an open area, with winnings in currency or points earned (similar to those earned in NASCAR races) to crown a national champion.
Although ballooning looks fairly simple to the outside observer, there really is a great deal that goes into it. For example, hot air balloons don’t fly all day, only in the morning and evening, when the wind and weather are most stable, predictable and calm.
“Hot air ballooning is extremely safe,” said Wonder balloon pilot Chris Sabia. “We watch the weather so closely that if the conditions are not exactly perfect, we will not fly. Now, we are dealing with Mother Nature so there are some things that can come up, like winds, but that is the easiest situation to deal with.”
One public misconception is that when a balloon takes off, it flies back to the same spot. Not so, explains Sabia. “We fly with the wind, which goes from one direction to another, and have chase vehicles with a crew that follow the balloon, and when it lands, they help pack it and the passengers up and bring them back to where we started.”
The propane tanks used for the balloon is the same as what we get for a home barbecue. In the Wonder Balloon, there was a total of 40 gallons on board, and during our one-hour flight, we went through approximately 12 to 15 gallons of fuel. The feeling was amazing, something everyone should experience at least once.
“The best way I can describe it to a first-timer is standing on the sidewalk watching the world go by. It is a very peaceful, serene and not a thrill ride,” Sabia says. “The balloon doesn’t have any moving parts. We are just using the physics of hot air to fly, putting heat in the balloon to go up and to slow down, and use the wind to choose which direction to go. It is very complex, but at the same time a very simple way to fly.”