If you’ve lived around Harrisburg long enough, you’ve likely driven winding country roads around Hershey, Lancaster, Gettysburg and points in between.
But if you’ve never gazed at the horizon over the basket of a hot air balloon, get thee to your bucket list.
The U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team flies regularly over parts of Pennsylvania, launching from the aforementioned cities, plus other points nationwide.
Hershey launches from the AACA Museum. The Lancaster launch is on Old Philadelphia Pike, Bird-in-Hand. In Gettysburg, the launch is at the Lodges. If you’d like a local road trip, you could float over Chester and Bucks counties.
While every location is unique, south-central Pennsylvania’s landscapes are especially breathtaking.
“Not everywhere is pretty to fly over, but Pennsylvania is,” said Ian Laxton, U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team ground crew member. “You can see farm property lines perfectly marked, with scenic, open fields.”
Jake Frame, general manager and pilot, said that people are also intrigued by the balloon itself.
“It’s exciting to watch, how it flies with hot air expanding,” he said. “Everyone has the same fascination interacting with it.”
If you take your own hot air balloon flight, you will use all of your senses during the two- to three-hour experience.
One thing you hopefully won’t experience is fear. If the thought of flying in a hot air balloon makes you squeamish, don’t worry. It’s not like regular flying. The balloon moves at wind-speed, so you don’t feel motion inside the basket.
Sam Kopp of Harrisburg took her first flight six years ago at age 8.
“Right before launching, the pilot threw a chip into the air to check wind speed and direction,” she said.
Working on the ground crew literally requires feats of strength—heavy lifting and pulling—plus careful planning to make the flight safe. Pre-flight, the team checks the forecast. This not only includes precipitation, but up-to-the-minute wind speed and direction, pressure and even radar.
Flights only occur during ideal weather conditions. Flights are postponed due to high winds, rain and thunderstorms, Frame said.
“Gentle snow is also a no,” he said.
The three- to four-person crew inspects the equipment for every flight. They test the burners in sequence, the propane tanks and industrial fans. They untangle and hook up the cables, venting lines and fabric. The crew positions the balloon to catch the wind.
“You don’t want the fabric to fight you,” Laxton said.
Initially, the basket lays on its side. The crew boards people into the sections according to their weight. (If you lie about this stat by a pound or 20, the crew is forgiving. Not that I learned this firsthand.) Everyone files in like rows of bunk beds on a submarine on sturdy rattan, reinforced with steel.
When the crew pumps air into the fabric, you will hear an alternating whoosh of gases being lit above your head, followed by quiet. It will feel alternately too cool and then too warm. Along with the cool air, the pilot will be lighting propane directly above your hair, so either go easy on that hair product or forego it altogether. Better yet, wear a hat.
The gases “displace the cooler air with warmer air in the balloon, making it less dense than the air around it, creating 100 to 200 pounds of resistance,” Laxton said. “That’s what creates the lift.” The balloon will rise, with the basket becoming upright.
Heather O’Donnell of Enola rode in a hot air balloon a few years ago, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It was calming and exciting all at the same time.”
The experience made O’Donnell feel close to her deceased mother, especially when her father serendipitously called his daughter en route.
“It felt like the three of us were together again,” she said.
Daring passengers use the balloon as a proposal spot.
“On one flight, the passenger got down on one knee and dropped the ring over the side,” Laxton said. “His girlfriend yelled at him. Then he pulled out the real ring.”
In the Clouds
Throughout the flight, the ground crew follows the balloon by van. Traditionally, ground crews used eyes, sense of wind direction and walkie-talkies, according to Laxton. There’s now an app for that called Glimpse to help modern crews navigate terrain.
After an hour of flight time, about six to 12 miles, the pilot releases hot air through the vent at the balloon’s apex to start the landing process. When close to touching ground, the passengers crouch in the basket. The pilot maintains just enough heat to allow the basket to hover over a good landing spot while the crew holds it steady to soften the landing. When the fabric deflates, “it looks like a snake,” Laxton said.
“We were up in the clouds, waving at a bunch of Amish kids,” Kopp said. “They chased the balloon, and then they greeted us barefoot when we landed on their farm at sunset.”
Laxton said that this often occurs.
“People in this area greet us when we land,” he said. “Some bring out coffee. Our relationship with the community makes it fun for us.”
Throughout history, not all onlookers were fascinated with the manned floating orbs. During the first flight in France in 1783, local landowners felt afraid because no one had ever flown before. This began the tradition of carrying champagne to appease local landowners and to quell superstitious talk. The U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team brings champagne, light snacks and soda post-flight.
If you prefer to stay on the ground, you can admire the array of colorful balloons during the annual Lancaster Balloon Festival. This year, it is scheduled from July 31 to Aug. 2 in Bird-in-Hand. Fall kicks off the U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team’s busiest season.
“People travel to Pennsylvania just to fly over the fall foliage,” Laxton said.
The United States Hot Air Balloon Team flies regularly from several locations in central Pennsylvania. For more information, call 717-276-9324 or visit www.ushotairballoon.com.