Floating into the sky

For as long as I’ve known her, my wife has wanted to fly in a hot air balloon. We mostly have places we want to visit on our Bucket Lists, but this was something different she always wanted to do. Last year, in 2018, I told her that we would go on a hot air balloon ride as part of her birthday present. Well, it ended up being a busy summer and we never got around to it. I guess you could say I dropped the ball on that one. So, this summer I made sure to call and book a date for us.

I made a reservation with Liberty Balloon to fly out of Letchworth State Park. Liberty Balloon (which recently bought out Balloons Over Letchworth) is the only company that is allowed to launch inside the park. I knew I wanted us to launch in Letchworth because I figured it would be a very scenic ride. That and I didn’t know where else you could fly in a hot air balloon in Western New York.

Before I proceed to tell you about our adventure I’d like to share a few things I learned about hot air balloons. First off, it’s very expensive. I’m sure it depends on who you book with and where you fly, but for us it cost $285 PER PERSON. That’s not cheap. However, this was something Ashley wanted to do for a long time, and we figured it would be a memorable experience.

Another thing I learned was that more than half the time the flights are cancelled. Liberty Balloon typically only launches from Letchworth close to sunset. That’s because the wind typically dies down then. They said they prefer for the winds to be between five and six miles per hour. So, if the winds are blowing harder than that or there are storms anywhere on the horizon they won’t fly.

I was also told a couple of things about clothing. You should wear sneakers or boots (not sandals or nice shoes). This is because you have to climb into and out of the balloon basket and you don’t know where the balloon will land. There’s a good possibility you will have to walk through a field or some high grass. It could be worse and you could land in mud or even water. The other thing is you should wear a hat. That’s because of the hot fire that roars very close to your head. It will be hot in there.

I had been checking the extended forecast for a couple of weeks leading up to our flight to have an idea of whether or not we’d be going up in the air. At first rain was likely, then a few days later the forecast started to improve. When that Saturday finally arrived the weather was beautiful. I figured we’d definitely be flying, but I still followed directions and called the balloon company after 3:00 p.m. to check. There was a recording that said they expected to fly and to be at the designated launch site at 6:00 p.m. They didn’t guarantee we’d fly, but said it would be likely and depend on the weather later on. That was good enough for us.

We started our drive toward Letchworth State Park a little after 4:00 p.m. and stopped for a light dinner just outside the park. We entered the park through the Castile entrance and made the short drive to the launch site, which is an open meadow in the valley between the middle falls and upper falls. We got there a little before 6:00 p.m. and were told there would be an informational talk for everyone that would be flying a little later. We went for a quick walk to the brink of the middle falls, not realizing we would soon get a once-in-a-lifetime view of the waterfall.

After a short wait we gathered with a group of about 15 other people. We found out there would be three different balloons flying. We would be in a balloon with another couple and our pilot. There would be another balloon with the same setup and then a larger balloon with a big basket that would fit eight people and their pilot. During the talk we mostly learned about the takeoff and landing. The pilot that led the informational meeting explained that it can be awkward and a little difficult to climb into the basket because of the four foot height. He also told us to bend our knees at the landing, because they can sometimes be a little rough and the basket can tip over at times due to the balloons momentum.

Next, we had to wait around for a little while. Our pilot, Lance, left to check the weather radar one last time. The problem is there is no cell service in the meadow, because it is down in a valley. So, he had to get in his car and take the park road up and out of the valley. Meanwhile, some other people unrolled the balloons out of three huge sacks. Then the other two pilots released a bright yellow balloon into the air to see which way the wind was blowing above the valley. Everyone was anticipating good news from Lance, so we were excited and getting ready to go.

Soon Lance returned with the promising weather report. The balloon crews wasted no time in readying the balloons and baskets. They quickly spread out the balloons, then opened them up and started inflating them with large fans. At that point we had to get close to the basket and be ready to jump in.

I was getting pretty excited, but also very anxious. I’m not a big fan of heights. I was initially afraid of getting motion sickness, but had read that you don’t actually feel the motion because the balloon flies calmly with the wind. Still, I was nervous about flying high into the air. Somehow I was under the impression that would we fly 2,000 feet into the air. I thought I had read that somewhere, but we didn’t end up going nearly that high.

We watched as the first balloon filled with hot air before its passengers quickly climbed into the basket. Just like that, the basket began to slowly rise up from the ground. Within a couple of minutes our balloon rose from the ground and the basket tipped upright. Lance waved us in. There was a hole in two sides of the basket. You can insert your foot into that, then sit atop the side of the basket and swing your legs into it. It was pretty easy for me thanks to my long legs.

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The four of us quickly joined our pilot and then he pulled on a lever above him to blow fire into the balloon. The fire roared loudly and it was incredibly hot. My height may have helped me climb into the balloon, but it also made my head hotter than anyone else’s in the basket. Ashley and I stood close in one corner of the balloon and she told me she didn’t feel well. She suddenly felt nauseous and was afraid she’d be sick. I tried to calm her down and told her that everything would be fine and we’d have a great time. In my head I was thinking that I was the one who was supposed to be anxious and freaking out (and I was in my head), not her. I couldn’t tell her how I felt at that point or else she might have insisted that we jump out.

Thankfully, we didn’t have much time to think about it. It took less than a minute for the balloon to lift off the ground. We rose slowly and one of the crew pulled a rope that moved our balloon farther into the middle of the meadow. Casually floating a couple of feet above the ground was a strange and slightly surreal sensation. All of a sudden we started to ascend into the air with increasing speed.

We cleared the tall trees that surrounded the meadow and neared the Genesee River. By this point Ashley already felt better and was enjoying herself. Meanwhile I was holding onto the basket for dear life. I was mentally doing pretty well, but at the same time I realized it would be incredibly easy for me to fall out of the basket. My waist was about even with the top of the basket, which meant it wouldn’t be hard to topple over the edge. As a result I hung on pretty tight. I eventually grew more comfortable, but I always held on with at least one hand.

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We were probably only a little more than 100 feet in the air, but the view and the experience was already amazing. People in the meadow and along the walkway near the river looked smaller and smaller the higher we ascended. The river flowed swiftly beneath us as it neared the monstrous middle falls. We really caught some lucky wind, because we had the privilege of flying right over the middle falls. It was an impressive sight watching that thunderous cataract from above. Not many people get to enjoy that view. The way our balloon followed the river over the waterfall, it looked like we saw the water the same way we would if we were in the river, about to go over the falls in a barrel.

After passing over the crest of the fall we had a great view looking back on the waterfall as well as many tiny spectators waving up to us from the viewpoints near the falls. Our balloon, at the mercy of the wind, followed the river for a couple more minutes before we drifted across the water. Then our pilot had to use the burners a lot to get us up and over a heavily-forested ridge. I thought it was pretty cool to watch our balloon’s shadow in the trees as it climbed.

Then we flew over a section of Letchworth State Park that I had never seen before. It was interesting to see parts of the park that rarely, if ever, get explored on foot. It was mostly all trees below us, but sometimes we’d see ponds, creeks, and other swampy areas.

After a few more minutes we were beyond the park’s border and traversing local farmland and fields. Lance began to communicate more with the chase team at this point via walkie-talkie. Each of the three hot air balloons had its own chase team made up of a few employees that drove a pair of vehicles and followed its assigned balloon. Once we were out of the park we were able to see the chase team multiple times as they tried to follow us on country roads. That wasn’t always easy, considering were flying with the wind, not knowing where we’d end up and the people in cars had to turn and stick to the roads.

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Soon Lance began to look for a place to land our balloon. We passed over a couple of very nice looking houses with well-manicured yards, but didn’t have enough time to land. He said those would have been ideal landing spots. A few minutes later we saw the first balloon land in a field with plenty of room for us to join them. Lance told the chase team we were going to try to land there and then we started to drop down. He told us bend our knees and brace for impact. We knew from the orientation talk that landings can be rough, but we got lucky. A teenager on our chase team ran over and grabbed the rope line hanging from our basket and was able to bring us in gently.

Once we landed the boy held our basket in place, so it didn’t topple over. A girl ran over to help hold the basket and then we were all able to climb out. Then we worked together to flatten out the balloon and squeeze into a large bag. Before we finished packing up we gathered together and joined in a celebratory champagne toast. The pilot left a bottle for the house on the property where we landed. Lance said he actually landed in almost the exact same spot a week earlier and talked to the owner of the house. He said they were fine with him landing there as long as he didn’t land on any crops. We just landed on some tall grass, so it was no big deal.

After the toast we were driven back to the parking lot adjacent to the launch site in Letchworth State Park. We quickly got in my truck and started our drive home. It was late and getting pretty dark. I wasn’t looking forward to the long drive in the dark across hilly backcountry roads. We hit a deer a year ago in a similar area, so that was my concern. That’s also why we took my truck, it’s bigger and I hoped safer. Thankfully, we didn’t hit any deer on the way home, although we did see a few. We got home around 10:30 p.m. and found both of our children peacefully sleeping.

Flying in a hot air balloon was truly a Bucket List experience. It should come as no surprise that I’d recommend it to anyone interested. It is expensive and the weather makes it difficult to know whether or not you’ll fly, but once you get up in the air you will be glad you decided to do it. We agreed that it will probably end up being a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for us. However, if we received another flight as a gift or could fly without having a long drive home afterward I could see us going again.

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