Up, Up and AwayPosted by in Travel
Last year, I bought my husband a gift certificate for a hot air balloon ride ($245 per person) over Letchworth State Park in Wyoming County, NY as his Christmas gift. We finally went for our ride on a recent beautiful fall weekend with Balloons Over Letchworth. This was our first hot air balloon ride and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m not afraid of heights, but I was a bit nervous!
We arrived at the park (known as the Grand Canyon of the East because of
the stunning gorge created by the Genessee River) to the launch site, which is next to the Glen Iris Inn (if you go, plan to have dinner at the inn afterwards, or book yourself a room – it’s a lovely inn overlooking the falls and they book far in advance for the fall foliage season). There were two balloons going up that night. We signed our waivers and declined the t-shirts that were for sale. First the baskets were rolled out of the trucks. Each basket weighs 1000 lbs. Next a really small looking bag was hauled out. Once it was opened and spread on
the ground, it was the balloon. The baskets were laid on their sides, the balloons attached to them and they were completely laid out on the ground. Then two big gas powered fans were directed at the balloons to fill them with air. This took about 20 minutes. Once the balloons were inflated, the burners were turned on to heat the air. Gradually the air warmed and soon the balloons lifted and straightened and the baskets were righted. Lots of people in the park and came and watched this spectacle.
Our captain was Sean Quigley who has
been piloting balloons for more than 20 years. He stood in the center of the basket. Around him were 4 compartments and 2 people were to stand in each. We climbed into the basket using some holes that are cut in the side. Terry and I stood in our little compartment, which was just the right size for two people.
Before we even knew it, our balloon had lifted off the ground. There is absolutely no sensation of movement when in a balloon. If you closed your eyes, you would think you were standing on the ground. You don’t feel upward motion or side to side movement. There is no swaying or jerking. Slowly, we rose over the falls at Letchworth and began to drift north and west across the park. Our companion balloon followed us.
Riding in a hot air balloon is very different from a plane. You remain close to the ground and you move slowly, so you have time to really see the scenery beneath you. Trees look different from the top down – softer and fuzzy somehow.
We had a beautiful perspective to see the changing the leaves and the colors were stunning. We could peer through the trees at the forest floor and make out logs and once in a while we saw hikers. Soon we were past the park and drifting over farms and fields. We saw many deer, who ran from us. We saw a fox in a field and floated over some cows who just tilted their heads in a leisurely way and watched us. There are more cows than people in Wyoming County and we saw plenty. It was almost like we were watching a silent movie as the trees and landscape moved below us. We were completely separate from the normal noises and
distractions of real life.
It is amazingly quiet up in the air, the silence interrupted only occasionally by the blowers. When we booked the reservation they told us to wear hats. The blowers are so hot that the top of your head gets very warm. I was very happy to have my hat on! It is warmer up in the air than down on the ground and we happened to be out on a warm evening, so we were very comfortable. If you tip your head backwards, you can see straight up into the balloon.
As we moved across the county, two chaser cars followed us and our pilot kept in touch with them via radio. Our pilot had no control over our direction however. He could control our height, but it was completely up to the wind to decide where we were going. We traveled at about 8 mph, a good speed since if the wind is over 10 mph they do not take off (and in fact, they couldn’t fly for 20 straight days this past July). We went as high as 2000 feet. Our companion balloon went down low enough for the passengers to pick some leaves, but our balloon didn’t get that low. Sean was always watching for power lines which said can be quite dangerous.
Soon we could see Silver Lake and since the sun was close to the horizon, Sean began looking for a place to land. The wind had carried us in a direction it did not usually blow, so he was in unfamiliar territory and did not know the farmers in the area. He tried to land a few times but changed his mind when he saw the terrain up close. He prefers to land in a flat mowed field and there weren’t many around. Eventually as it was about to get dark, he decided to land in an alfalfa field. The wind had
picked up at this point. Balloons do not land by coming straight down. Instead, they come in on an approach like an airplane does. Sean told us to bend our knees and hunker down since we would bounce. We bounced twice, fairly hard, before coming to a stop on our third touch down. The approach felt very fast, compared to our movements up in the air which felt very slow.
Our adventure wasn’t over yet. Sean didn’t know the farmer who owned the field. No one in surrounding houses were answering their doors
and we were in the middle of an alfalfa field. He wanted to be able to drive his trucks out to the balloons to load them up, but knew doing so would damage the field. So he wanted to move the balloons. The guys from the chaser cars came over and Sean attempted to lift the balloon up about 2 feet and the plan was for the guys to pull it towards the street. The wind was quite strong at this point and was blowing in the opposite direction. They could not make any progress. Eventually Terry and another passenger got out and helped. The 4 of them could not control the balloon (and this was a dangerous situation – the balloon would lift them off the ground then come back down again and they had to certain not to get their feet underneath it). Most of us remaining passengers sat down on the floor of the basket so that we would not be tossed around so much. Eventually, despite everyone’s efforts, the basket blew over on its side while we were still in it. This was a little scary while it was happening, but since we were right on the ground, I knew it wasn’t dangerous. I crawled out, but some of the other passengers were a little shaken, including an elderly woman.
Next we sat in the chaser’s van while the guys had to put the balloons and baskets on wheeled carts and attempt to wheel them out of the field which took about 45 minutes. Eventually we made it back to the park but we didn’t stay for the traditional champagne toast. I was done with balloons at that point!
Despite our rocky ending (which Sean insisted very rarely happens) I would go in a hot air balloon again. It was an hour of absolute silence and offered a beautiful perspective that felt rare and special.
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