Thrill of a lifetime

HUGHESVILLE – Early Saturday morning, Sun-Gazette photographer Mark Nance and I were given the opportunity to ride in a hot air balloon, as part of the “Balloonfest, Air Show & So Much More” hosted by the Lycoming County Rotary Clubs at the Hughesville Fairgrounds.

Our flight was scheduled to leave the fairgrounds at 6:30 a.m. Our pilot, Steve Esser, explained that balloons fly in the morning and evening, because the wind currents are more calm then.

“One benefit of this is that we fly during some of the prettiest light,” Esser said.

Esser and his wife, Lois, have been ballooning enthusiasts since the early 1980s. They met some balloon pilots at an event and quickly became fascinated. Soon after, they joined a balloon chase crew themselves and by 1988 Steve had acquired his balloon pilot’s license.

Esser said his “Bloomin Balloon” was custom made, as are almost all hot air balloons in the United States. Lois designed his balloon’s distinctive tulip pattern to be reminiscent of Pennsylvania Dutch quilts.

“It’s one of the prettiest balloons in the whole world,” Esser said as his crew began unfurling the long, red and white fabric. The team works quickly, connecting the burner to the gondola. After a few test burns, the burner is placed in front of the balloon’s bottom opening, and Esser slowly began to fill the balloon with gas. Once the mammoth orb was fully inflated, we were instructed to hop into the gondola.

The crew walked along with our hovering basket and led us out further into the launch field. On Essers’ command, the let go, and we slowly began to rise. Though I’m not afraid of heights, the feeling of weightlessness made me momentarily dizzy. Esser reminded us that we could hang onto the rope holds inside the gondola to steady ourselves. After a moment, we adjust to the balloon’s gentle swaying and begin to breathe a little easier.

We rose steadily over the patchwork of late season crops growing in the farmers’ fields below. Golden rays of sunshine began to break through the gray morning clouds, highlighting the hills, valleys and fields passing slowly underneath us.

As we fly, Esser explained some of the basic principles of ballooning. He can raise the craft by lighting his burner and pumping more propane into the balloon. He lowers the balloon using two ropes, which run to different vents high on top of the balloon.

Far below, the Bloomin Balloon’s chase crew sped along the pavement, following us from the ground. The crew, which typically numbers seven to 10 people, is responsible for tracing the balloon’s flight path and meeting us at our landing point. Once we land, they will help wrangle the gondola safely to the ground, help collect the balloon as it deflates and load the equipment back into a van.

Penny Estes, crew member for another balloon pilot, explained the unique challenges faced by the team on the ground.

“Chasing is an altogether different animal,” she said.

“We’re trying to second-guess what the pilot is doing and trying to keep a visual on the balloon. Sometimes that’s not possible; they go by way of the crew, but we have to go by way of the pavement,” she added.

Most of the crew fits into the same black SUV. A warning on the black of their black equipment trailer reads: “Balloon Chase Crew, Frequent Stops and Indecisions.” From the gondola, we can see them speeding along on the roadway below. Several times, the team has to turn around to keep up with the direction the wind is pushing the balloon.

Throughout the flight, Steve and Lois maintained radio contact. He tells her where he is planning on flying and describes possible landing points he is considering all along the journey.

“I am constantly scanning for safe places to land in case of an emergency,” Esser said.

“I am looking for nice, flat places such as recently harvested fields or large yards, that also have an easy access point so my team can reach us,” he added.

During our-hour, 20-minute flight, we traveled over farmlands, highways, neighborhoods and a large section of PPL’s Montour Environmental Preserve. Ahead of us, another balloon pilot lowered his craft until it hovered just a few feet above the water of Lake Chillisquaque.

Once we reach the other side of the lake, Esser brings the balloon down for a landing. The gondola gives a few gentle bounces as it touches down. Suddenly, we were surrounded by crew members, who helped to steady the basket and weigh it down.

Once the balloon is put away, everyone is invited for champagne and Lois’ homemade cookies.