For those searching for extreme heights, a hot air balloon ride is a good way to reach them. “On a typical passenger flight, we like to go up to at least 1,000 or 2,000 feet,” says Dave Williams of Hudson Valley Enchanted Balloon Tours. “The highest I’ve ever been on a passenger flight is 10,000 feet.”
Williams, who has two hot air balloons — one that can fit four passengers and another capable of carrying eight — has been taking people soaring across Orange County for close to eight years. When customers arrive for takeoff, they can see the crew hook the gondola (the basket) to the envelope (the balloon). Once this is done, the envelope is inflated with cold air and the pilot lights a flame to heat the air and make it rise. At this point, the pilot gives guests the all-clear to hop in, the gondola is untethered, and away you float.
Sunrise and sunset offer the best weather for taking to the skies. “We prefer the morning rides because the air is calm and predictable,” says Williams. “We don’t have to worry about the winds picking up like we do with the afternoon flights.” Ideal weather conditions for a flight are winds between zero and four miles per hour, clear visibility, and no rain. “Even if it’s foggy but you can see for a few miles you can still get a wonderful balloon ride,” he says.
Part of the thrill when taking a ride is the fact that there are many variables over which the pilot has no control. “You can’t control the direction, you can’t control the speed,” says Williams. “You have to count on using the winds to push you along.” He goes on to explain that winds blow in different directions at certain altitudes. Experienced pilots are adept at locating and using these winds to maneuver the balloon where they want to go.
Despite the inability to steer, Williams notes that rides are very safe, and not at all likely to land you in Oz. Each gondola is equipped with a GPS, so pilots always know their exact location. They are also in constant communication by cell phone with a chase crew in a car that follows the balloon on the ground.
A typical ride lasts for one hour and gives customers some stunning views. Immediately after launching, the balloon floats over a small lake in which you can see its reflection. As you rise higher, most of Orange County’s Black Dirt Region is visible, and higher still provides a view of the Manhattan skyline. “And we can control exactly how high or low we want to be up to the foot or the inch, so we can actually skim the treetops to add a little excitement,” Williams says. Because of these stunning vistas, Williams sees many proposals and weddings in his balloons. “They’ll bring the justice of the peace and witnesses with them,” he says.
Ultimately, each flight is unique. “It’s a little different every time you go; I have 500 hours flying and I’m always in awe,” says Williams. “It’s a blessing to be up there as a job. It’s fun, too.”
Can’t get enough giant balloons? From July 5-7, the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce hosts its annual Hot Air Balloon Festival. Four mass launches are scheduled throughout the weekend, during which about 17 balloons — most sponsored by local businesses — take off from several spots throughout the county. Close to 10,000 visitors are expected to watch the spectacle over the three days. Call or visit the Chamber’s Web site for specific locations and times: 845-454-1700, ext. 1000 or www.dcrcoc.org.
Hudson Valley Enchanted Balloon Tours, Slate Hill; www.balloon-rides-ny.com
Above the Clouds, Middletown; www.abovethecloudsinc.com
Fantasy Balloon Flight, Inc., Middletown; www.fantasyfliers.com
Wandering Winds Hot Air Balloon Adventure, Middletown; www.wanderingwindshotairballoons.com
Blue Sky Balloons, Beacon; www.blueskyballoons.com
The Balloon Bed and Breakfast, Hudson; www.balloonbedandbreakfast.com
New York Balloon Rides, various locations; www.balloonridesovernewyork.com