Long before the Festival opens at 6 o’clock in the morning on Saturday, July 28, and Sunday, July 29, the balloon launch field will already be busy with activity as pilots and their crews begin preparations for that morning’s mass ascension. While 6:00 a.m. may seem way too early for most people (especially on a summer weekend!), it feels like late morning to those of us who have already been out on the field readying to launch up to 125 hot air balloons for your enjoyment.
I’ll arrive at Solberg Airport around 4:30 a.m., hop on my golf cart and use a flashlight to navigate my way onto the launch field in the pitch dark. There I’ll meet up with Jimmy Vinson, a Quick Chek store engineer who has been involved with the Festival for the past 14 years, who’ll have a truck full of Quick Chek coffee and breakfast waiting for the pilots and their crew. As the skies start to lighten, the pilots and their crews pick out a spot to launch from, park their chase vehicles and head over to the pilots’ tent for some breakfast and that morning’s pilot briefing.
Before every balloon ascension, our Balloonmeister, Larry Konash, conducts a pilot briefing. Larry tells the group all about the flight: the weather conditions including wind direction, the general direction of their flight, and details about that flight’s competition.
The competitions are typically what we call a “hare ‘n hound” where the first balloon – the hare – takes off before the others. After the hare is in the air for about 5 minutes, the other balloons – the hounds – then take off. They try to emulate the flight of the hare balloon, which can be quite difficult since balloons can’t be steered, relying solely on the winds for direction. After 15 minutes or so, the hare lands and spreads a large red “X” on the ground. The hounds then try to drop a numbered beanbag closest to the center of the “X.” $15,000 in prize money is awarded over the course of the 5 mass ascensions during the Festival.
OK, back to the launch field. It’s now around 6:00 a.m., the sun is starting to rise and the Festival grounds and flight line are filling up with spectators. Once the pilot briefing is dismissed, the pilots and crew meet their passengers at the balloon ride tent and return to their chase vehicles to set up for the launch. The passengers may choose to help or they can watch as the balloon basket, balloon envelope and fan are all pulled out of the chase vehicle and assembled. It never ceases to amaze me that a 75-foot-tall hot air balloon can fit into the back of a small truck or SUV.
At the Balloonmeister’s first signal, the morning silence is broken and the hare balloon begins to inflate with cold air from its fan. Once the hare stands up and is ready to lift off, the launch field erupts with the sound of 124 fan engines starting to inflate the rest of the balloons. They are packed tightly with cold air while they wait for the hare balloon to launch. Once the Balloonmeister signals, the hare takes off and the rest of the pilots ignite their burners and blast hot air into their balloons. That’s that magic moment when the brightly colored balloons finally stand up tall and are ready for take off. With one final signal from the Balloonmeister, the rest of the balloons lift off the ground into the quiet morning sky.
Even though I’ve done this before and have experienced many mass ascensions, there’s this unbelievable feeling I get standing among 125 massive balloons and watching them take to the skies. I still get goosebumps!
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