About the only thing that ties this blog post to the farm is the fact that I was looking at it from a distance for about an hour on Sunday morning.
Father’s Day weekend is always the Quechee Hot Air Balloon Craft and Music Festival (that is a LOOOONG title). This year was the 38th version. Saturday afternoon, Steve (who serves on the sponsoring Hartford Chamber of Commerce board and was working at the festival) texted me offering two free balloon rides for early Sunday morning.
Loretta, Jason and Kate were all visiting for the weekend. So I put it to them – who wants to go? I knew Peg was a “no” – heights are not her gig. Kate took a pass – her dog Sophie was at the farm as well. Jason and Loretta – for sure! Since I can take a balloon ride from Quechee “anytime”, I passed. I offered a ride to the festival early Sunday morning and I’d watch the launch. Alarms were set for 5 a.m., as we needed to be there by 5:30 for the 6 a.m. launch. Needless to say, we went to bed earlier than usual.
It was cloudy with a slight breeze when we arrived, and there was a long line of people checking in. The festival website has profiles for 23 pilots, each can probably take at least 3 passengers. 6 a.m. came and went.
The festival grounds has a large flat field for vehicle parking and balloon launching and a slight knoll which spectators were slowly filling with camp chairs to watch the launch. Around 6:30, standing on the knoll, we saw a group gathered on the field – pilots’ meeting.
The balloon festival is a great idea – with one caveat. If the weather isn’t right, the balloons don’t launch (thus the additions of “craft” and “music”). Launches are scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday, and 6 a.m. and 6 p.m Saturday and Sunday. Friday – no launch. Saturday 6 a.m. – no launch. Saturday 6 p.m. they launched – we saw several floating north to the west of the farm.
The PA announcer came on a few times to say the “balloonmeister” was waiting for the ceiling to rise. The pilot for Jason and Loretta’s ride – Bill Colyer – introduced himself along with his wife Pat. At 7:30 the PA announced that they were on hold until 8, but a few pilots would blow up their balloons so people could take photos and talk to the pilots.
A little before 8, Bill told us they’re going and pointed Jason and Loretta to his van. Once there, Pat said to me, “We’ve got room for one more.” I’m in – went back and paid, and initialed and signed in multiple places.
Bill introduced us to two other passengers – Jim and Susan. Five passengers – Bill has a big basket. Jim braced a big floor fan to start blowing up the balloon, Jason and I helped hold out the material, Bill lit up his burner, and the balloon was upright. We climbed in and set off around 8:10. We were the third balloon up and we started drifting with the wind north.
It’s hard to describe a balloon ride. The takeoff is a little shaky, but the basket quickly settles down and we are literally floating in the air – very smooth. I would also say quiet, except for the time Bill turns on the burner – that is loud.
As we’re ascending, Bill announces, “Feel free to move around the cabin.” Good joke – there is little room to move. The wicker basket is 6 feet by 4 feet and three corners are filled with propane tanks.
As we get up, around 300 feet, we can see more of the surrounding scenery – fields, houses, roads, driveways and LOTS of woods. After 15 minutes I look to the northeast and can see Savage Hill, the Fairbrothers farm, the Jeffe farm, and our farm. I tell Jason and Loretta where it is, but it is hard for them to make it out. I’m sure because the silver roof of the run-in shed stands out.
Around 8:45, I phone Peg and tell her to look for us. Bill says “spiral rainbow” –the color pattern of his balloon. At some point we actually brush the treetops – Bill assures us that is just fine.
Around 9:00 Bill is looking for a place to land. We’re close to the Quechee West Hartford Road. We come down in a nicely sized and fairly level field – we bounce once (again, just fine) and settle down on a mowed path in the middle of the field. A nearby pilot – there are about ten balloons in the air – yells to Bill, “this is a red zone, no landing! They’ve called the State Police!”
(Looking at Google Maps – we’ve flown about 3.5 miles north of the fairgrounds)
(The photos in the above gallery were all taken between launch and the first attempted landing)
Bill immediately tells Jim and Susan to get out and ride with the chase crew (who had just arrived) in the van. Then we take off again. As we ascend this time, we actually got up into the clouds (Bill later said the altitude was about 3000 feet). Loretta discovered that yelling in a cloud produces a slight echo – like talking in an empty room with bare floors.
We continue to head north and after a while I say, “There’s the Pomfret Road.” (about 2.5 miles northwest of the first landing attempt). Bill sees a wide field and we descend. There are horses in a paddock in part of the field, and Bill doesn’t like the idea of electric fences. Plus, as we come down, we are heading straight towards a single bushy tree in the middle of the field. Bill takes us up again.
Not long after this attempt we see a “postage stamp” of a field and Bill starts to descend but quickly aborts as there are power lines right below us. Meanwhile the chase van is tagging along as best it can.
Back up in the air and heading north, the fields literally disappear and there is nothing but wood covered ridges and valleys. It’s during this stretch that we start asking Bill about landing in trees – no big deal, just makes things more difficult – and propane capacity. Coming up on another ridge, Bill says, “if we don’t see something good on the other side, we should start looking for small trees”.
On the other side we do see a moderate field and Bill immediately descends. The chase van is pulling up, along with a few other cars that have been chasing just for the fun of it. As we come down, I say, “Bill, do you see those power lines?” “Yes.” Bill picks up a long coil of nylon strap that has been resting on top of a tank, throws it out and yells to the ground to catch it and pull us to the left, away from the lines.
We come down on the side of a hill that has both tall grass and short trees – we push through small pines and scrape on the grass. Bill tells Jason and me to get out and hang on to the basket and push, as we need to keep moving the left for a better landing spot. A few seconds later, the basket lifts up and my feet are about a foot off the ground. Jason, who is uphill of me and still touching earth, sees this. Neither of us say anything, but I’m thinking – at what point do I let go?
By this time there are four people holding the line, and the balloon has officially landed. As it starts to deflate on the ground, I call Peg, “We’re on the ground.” Time – 10:50. What should have been a 45 minute flight lasted about an hour and 40 minutes.
(My calculations using Google Maps – we landed in Sharon about 5.5 miles northwest of where we crossed the Pomfret Road. Total distance – about 11.5 miles.)
(I didn’t take any photos or videos between the first landing attempt and the final landing. Wonder why…)
Bill tells us he had 22% capacity in the last of three tanks – 3 gallons, or 10% of total capacity. We had 15 minutes of flight time left. Jason and Loretta were keeping tabs on the gauge, I was not.
Hugs all around as the balloon is stuffed into a bag and the basket is slid onto a platform on the back of the van. All three of us – all four actually – were pretty quiet during the last 30 minutes of our ride. Personally, I was never “worried” – Bill has been a balloon pilot for 43 years. But a saying comes to mind, flight attendants use it all the time: Better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground.
Overall, a fantastic experience. Would I do it again? Probably not. Bucket list. Been there, done that. $255 (including tip). Yet….PRICELESS!