Hot Air Balloons: The Stuff Dreams are Made Of
It’s a hot July day in Wellsville, New York. The town is enjoying a larger than normal number of visitors. In fact, parking spots are hard to find and police are directing traffic, both phenomena that happen almost never in this once-prosperous but fairly run-down small town. It’s the weekend of the balloon rally. There is excitement in the air.
We park in a parking lot behind Main Street. It’s a fair hike to the balloon rally grounds (spread over two baseball fields), but this is the closest we can park. Before heading over, we check out the balloon shop on Main, hoping from some rally t-shirts and posters. The shop is dark and closed. A sign says “Come see us at the rally!”
It’s a long hot walk to the rally grounds, but I’m excited. I have never been to a balloon rally nor ever seen a hot air balloon “live.” I’ve seen them on TV, of course, but that’s not the same. There is a peculiar romance to the hot air balloon, I think. Ballooning is a pleasure-only type of transportation now. You can’t hurry a balloon, nor can you control very well where it goes. Hot air balloons are dependent on good weather and low wind. In other words, they are a thing of beauty; not very practical, but lovely.
From across the river we can hear music from the rally grounds. As we get closer, we see hundreds of people milling around. There are souvenir vendors (we get the much-coveted Great Wellsville Hot Air Balloon Rally t-shirts), sellers of hot dogs, candied apples, flowering onions, ice cream, burgers and fries, and an interesting wagon-like cart that sells old-fashioned soda drinks in large tin cups. Chuck Wagon Soda it is called and we partake.
But finally we get to the rally grounds themselves. Lift off is planned for six o’clock. It is almost six now and people are getting settled on the grass surrounding area. A metal chain-link fence that separates the balloonists from the populace. We sit on what looks like a railroad tie. My husband goes off to take pictures. After about ten minutes my five-year-old son begins to wriggle and squirm. People sit in front of us and block our view. We move closer to the fence.
Hot Air Balloonists from All Over
Not too much is happening yet, but we do see big wicker baskets being unloaded. Burners are being tested, with a “pffft” sound coming from here and there as the gas flames in the air. We wait. The atmosphere is one of expectation. The pilots head to the pilot briefing. My husband re-appears and is talking to a lady across the fence. She walks out and he points to us. She comes closer saying she had to meet fellow Canadians. She is on the team of the Canadian balloon called Sky Turkey.
I try to stand up from the grass and gracefully fall back on my bum. I try again and wobble right into her arms. We talk for a while and she walks back into the enclosure where the balloons are. We sit back down and marvel at meeting her when she re-appears waving my son over to go with her. We clutch the fence as she walks him in and over to the balloon. He’s in. OK, lady, we think, where is our child. She re-appears at the fence once again and slips us a couple of pit passes. I can’t believe it. I am actually going INSIDE the pit with the balloonists!
As we get introduced to everyone, the pilots return from their pre-launch briefing. The ‘pieball‘ (“Pilot-Inflated Balloon Aloft“) is released. A ‘pieball‘ is the acronym for a small black balloon released prior to a launch and is viewed during its ascent to ascertain wind direction and speed higher up. The black pieball yielded a mixed and unfavorable message.
Take off is at pilot’s discretion tonight as there is a bit of fast wind higher up. Balloon teams huddle and make their decisions.
Sky Turkey yields to safety and will not fly tonight. The pilot deems it too risky.
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Kids from the Sky Turkey entourage take my son and show him around as other teams unfold their balloons. The balloon needs to be taken out of the bag first and unfolded on the ground. Seams are checked. Then a huge fan-like contraption is used to fill the balloon full of air. It is then billowing huge on the ground. Seams are checked again. Then the air inside is heated so the balloon stands upright. It is ready for take-off.
All around us balloons are being unfolded. One person holds on to a rope attached to the top of the balloon. This will pull as the balloon lifts up. Some of the balloons as they are being inflated, push onto parked trucks and other balloons. They must be pushed gently out of the way.
And then the magic moment comes. All around us, like giant colourful mushrooms, balloons lift slowly into the air. It is wonderful. There are five, ten, fifteen balloons. They rise up majestically over the field and fly over the trees and out of sight. We get to help push a neighbouring balloon out of the way of a truck.
Up, Up and Away! Hot Air Balloons Aloft!
This is amazing, like nothing I have ever seen. I have a feeling of warmth all around my heart. I want to hug the whole balloon team. Chase vehicles take off as soon as their balloon is in the air. Balloons are rather quickly racing towards the horizon, now embraced by the fast currents of wind higher up in the heavens. So later in the early evening, these pilots would very soon be spotting for suitable places to land before the fading twilight abandons them for the night.
Once the last balloon is airborne, it is time for us to go. It’s late, almost getting dark by now. I don’t want to go, and look wistfully around. My son is almost asleep in a folding chair. It’s really must be time to go.
We say goodbye to everyone and walk off the field, our pit passes dangling proudly on our chests. We’ll be back tomorrow. And certainly next year. And the next. I am hooked.