With Safety as Priority-One, the United States Hot Air Balloon Team Flies Sky-High
It is still dark when I pull into the parking lot at Pottstown Municipal Airport, just west of U.S. Route 100. But according to the text I received at 4:15 a.m. from pilot Stan Hess, the scheduled balloon ride for that morning is a go.
Hess, who has been flying for more than 30 years and has logged thousands of hours in the air all over the world, employs a Plan A and a Plan B when booking flights. Plan A is a morning departure, just as dawn breaks. Plan B kicks in if the weather is bad, postponing lift-off to dusk if possible, and if not, a scrub for that day and a reschedule for another.
Taking a hot air balloon ride, it seems, can involve a little patience and a little flexibility.
But on this day, winds are calm and the azure sky is cloudless.
I'm not only a passenger this morning, I'm also part of the working crew. So after a round of handshakes to the professionals, I'm pressed into service removing the basket from storage in Hess' trailer. It is surprisingly like the picnic basket Dorothy used to transport Toto, and I immediately wonder how the woven-wicker construction can hold 12 people and six large canisters of a propane-nitrogen fuel mix. But considering it takes four of us to move the basket, it's clearly up to the task.
As we work, Hess, a bundle of energy in a red flight jacket, explains the early morning timing: "Sunrise and sunset are the best times of day for a hot air balloon ride. By mid-morning, midday, the air starts to heat up at different elevations, creating thermals - columns of rising air. They're great for gliders and small fixed-wing airplanes, but not ideal for balloons."
We attach a metal framework. It holds two giant jets that, when connected to the fuel tanks, shoot flames upward and provide lift. The balloon is unpacked and laid out on the runway.
In the distance, the other passengers begin to arrive.
Filling the inflatable is not unlike blowing up a balloon at a five-year-old's birthday party. Just bigger. 225 cubic feet bigger. If the balloon were filled with water, it would hold more than a thousand gallons.
A pair of industrial fans roar to life and in a matter of minutes, the "envelope" is full. The morning breeze starts to grab the sphere, and we struggle to keep a grip on the lines. Hess grabs the burners, points them into the mouth and fires off a series of blasts to begin to warm the air. Within moments, the balloon stands upright, and we're ready to go.
Seven passengers clamor aboard: six students from the University of Delaware and Assistant Professor Jeffrey Buler. "We are on a field study," Buler explains. "This is my Landscape Ecology class. All semester long, we stare at maps and satellite imagery, and I thought it would be a good idea to get up and above the landscape and look at it from a different perspective. I was thinking of taking them to Hawk Mountain near Allentown, but I thought this would be better." Buler has only six students but jokes that that, "...when word gets out about the kind of field study I run - a trip in a hot air balloon - I'm going to have 30 kids on my roster next semester."
Once everyone is settled and Hess runs through a few last safety reminders ("Take plenty of pictures, but don't drop anything."), the ground crew releases the tether and we are off.
The sensation is very gentle, as if we're in a very slow and deliberate elevator. The sun is now well above the horizon, and our silhouette creates a lightbulb-shaped shadow that follows us on the ground.
We drift to the east, and Hess blasts the burners to lift us higher. The boxy shape of a WalMart roof slides by. In the distance, the footprint of the Coventry Mall is discernible, and to our east, the giant towers of the Limerick Generating Station dominate the view. Hess uses the steam they emit as navigation point. "They're the best barometer in the county," he says.
Hess got into hot air ballooning 30 years ago, after taking his first ride. The process of gaining a license is very rigorous and controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), much like a fixed-wing pilot's license. The application process is followed by coursework, training hours in the air and a rigorous test.
"We fly all year round," Hess relates, eyes ever scanning the conditions aloft. "Even in winters. People mistakenly think it requires more fuel to fly in the winter, but really, the opposite is true. I mean, when it's cold, we do lose some heat through the silk. But in general, I need to heat the interior of the envelope three times the outside temperature to gain enough lift. On a day like today, when the morning temperature was around 50, that meant I needed 150 degrees inside the balloon. On a day when it's 90 degrees, I need to burn enough fuel to get it to 270."
Hess remains in steady contact with his ground crew via radio, telling them where he's headed. He is able to "steer" the balloon by reading the wind currents at various altitudes and using them to direct the basket. His navigation is much like how a captain maneuvers a ship at sea.
The Landscape Ecology students are busy. Dr. Buler has given them each a worksheet, and they are gathering data and observations as the ooh and ahh at the view. "It's neat to see birds flying from the vantage point of a bird flying," Buler notes.
Below us, the Schuylkill River flows by, and it is only at this altitude - about 1,500 feet - that its coiling and meandering are evident.
We float toward Linfield and pass by the gothic architecture of the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital. Even at a distance, it's easy to see why people theorize that the property is haunted.
As we ride along, I note that the ride is virtually silent, save the occasional blast of the burners and the murmurings of the students. A peacock trumpets a hello; several dogs bark at us. And as we drift northward, early-morning residents of Royersford are beginning to take note. We sail over the assembly of a yard sale, and parents holding kids in pajamas stare upward and wave.
Hess begins to scan the horizon for landing spots: "There are only a few places where we will not land," he says. "Golf courses, cemeteries and cow pastures. Cows hate us."
As if on cue, we pass over a field of bellowing bovines, and they sprint for the barn.
Hess rides a current to take us over Route 422. Because we are only slightly higher than treetop level, the cars passing by underneath are able to beep and wave, and we enthusiastically wave back.
As Hess maneuvers us toward the Spring Ford School District 7th Grade Center. He controls the descent using ropes attached to a trapdoor at the top of the balloon. Like a puppeteer manipulate a giant marionette, Hess opens the hatch and begins releasing the hot air. The silk begins to gently deflate.
We ease down in the middle of the school's soccer field. Hess has prepped us for landing, instructing us to hold on and bend our knees to absorb any impact. There is virtually none, and we are once again earthbound.
The ground crew arrives with their multi-passenger van and trailer, and the dismantling begins: Balloon sadly deflates, is rolled and packed away. The giant picnic basket is lugged into storage.
We are driven back to Pottstown, where a champagne toast brings the morning's high-flying adventure to a close. Hess leads us in the "Balloonist Prayer":
The wind has welcomed you the softness... The sun has kissed you with her warm lips
You've flown so high and so well that God joins you in laughter and has set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
A hot air balloon makes a great adventure solo but also a romantic getaway, especially when combined with an overnight in one of our award-winning hotels or B&Bs. Check out our website for recommendations. And if all that fresh air awakens your appetite, our restaurant scene is diverse as it is delicious. One local favorite is Pacific Prime, where the lobster mashed potatoes are as fabulous as they sound.