Chris Healy was 13 when a hot-air balloon flew over his Middletown home. Jumping onto his bicycle, Healy pedaled madly, following the balloon as it floated overhead before landing in a field. The teen boldly offered to help pack up the silky fabric, and the balloon’s pilot offered him a job on the spot. Five years later, Healy earned his pilot’s license. And for about 30 years, he’s owned Above the Clouds, Inc. (ATC), flying his own balloons over the same Orange County terrain.
ATC flies three balloons: two have a capacity of eight passengers each plus the pilot, while the third balloon can hold four passengers plus a pilot. Made of ripstop nylon, the brightly colored “envelope” weighs 400 pounds. Pair that with a 700-pound wicker basket (“gondola”), add passengers and the pilot, and you’re bound to wonder how that 100-foot-tall contraption can fly.
Quite easily, in fact. The larger balloons hold 175,000 cubic feet of air, while the smaller one’s capacity is 105,000 cubic feet. Each balloon carries about 47 gallons of propane fuel; 25-30 gallons are used in a typical hour-long flight, periodically ignited by a burner above the pilot’s head.
When the burner’s not firing, the ride is quiet, without even the sound of the wind to disturb the peace (because the balloon is flying with the wind, not against it).
You have to get up quite early — usually before dawn — for a balloon ride, but you’re rewarded with gorgeous sunrises and amazing, expansive vistas.
Bobbing along at up to 3,000 feet is enchanting, but it’s not an easy job — as Hudson Valley discovered when we accompanied Healy on an early-morning lift in late spring. (Balloon flights begin around dawn, both to catch the sunrise and to avoid thermally generated wind.)
The pilot must look out for power lines and other hazards before descending. A landing site — often a vacant field or a handy cul-de-sac — is anywhere with enough room for the balloon to safely deflate. ATC has chase vans that follow the balloons, keep in touch with the pilots via two-way radios, and transport passengers back to their cars at Randall Airport.
After each landing, ATC’s Deana DeRosa pops open a bottle of bubbly and tells the story of the maiden balloon voyage in Paris in 1783. Parisian farmers were mystified by the airborne objects, so French pilots began carrying champagne as a peace offering after landing in the farm fields; in their honor, every ATC balloon flight ends with a champagne toast, DeRosa explains — bringing day-drinking to a whole new level.