New Jersey Hot Air Balloon Adventure
There is something about a hot air balloon that is intriguing, captivating and awe- inspiring. Perhaps it has to do with man and woman’s fascination with flight since the beginning of time. Experimentation with hot air ballooning began over 200 years ago. The first hot air balloon or lighter than air demonstration was with the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. Their first successful flight carried a sheep, a rooster and a duck on board. The first flight in the United States was from Philadelphia, PA to Deptford, New Jersey. In fact, there is a Deptford hot air balloon that flies the skies of Southern New Jersey as well as many festivals around the US.
A large number of hot air balloonists live and play in northwest New Jersey, in particular Warren and Hunterdon Counties. This part of New Jersey is quite rural in some parts so landing spots are plentiful. Balloonatics & Aeronuts is situated just a mile from the Delaware River and sometimes if the winds are favorable, you end up doing a “splash and dash” on the river.
Once a year Balloonatics & Aeronuts coordinate one of two balloon festivals held annually in New Jersey. Roughly 30 pilots congregate each year for some exciting competition and camaraderie at the Hot Air Balloon Festival at the Warren County Farmers Fair. One of the most popular and unusual races at this balloon festival is the Bicycle Balloon Race. In this race a bicyclist rides in the balloon and the bike gets strapped to the outside of the basket. Pilots need to pass a particular landmark at which point they can land and let the biker out. At that point the biker races back to the fairground. Leslie Bensley, executive director of Morris County Tourism Bureau had an opportunity to hitch a ride with balloonmeister Fred Grotenhuis during the competition. She says about the experience, “no one could have prepared me for what has truly become the most breathtaking experience of my life – hot air ballooning. Not only was I there to enjoy the most magnificent evening ride but I also participated in the bicycle race and all the excitement that went along with it! Up, down, fast, slow and then landing on what seemed like a postage stamp. A must for those that have yet to try it.” The festival is sponsored by the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism.
Flights can be taken year round but flight times vary on the time of year as they are either at sunrise or a few hours before sunset. This always offers the most favorable flying conditions. The entire experience is quite an adventure for most passengers. Once you arrive at the launch field the pilot and crew will begin to unload the basket and the balloon, called the envelope. Passengers, if they wish, can participate in putting together basket and balloon and then help with the inflation. Most passengers are very eager to help as the entire process is a bit bewildering and new, and even a little questionable when they find out the very top of the balloon is held in place with velcro during the inflation! When the balloon stands up the pilot will instruct the passenger to add some weight by hopping in – before he takes off by himself. And within a few minutes the balloon is completely inflated and stabilized. Then it is time to take off. The balloon rises ever so gently off the ground, that at first the passengers don’t even realize there is nothing but air below. When the balloon lifts the wind then dictates the direction and speed of the flight. The pilot can steer the balloon by changing altitude hoping to find a favorable wind! They can only steer the balloon with the wind conditions given that morning or evening. The wind pushes the balloon along and the adventure begins over the blossoming trees in the spring, the farmers’ crops in the summer and the kaleidoscope of fall foliage in the autumn.
During the flight the pilot is in communication with the crew on the ground. The game plan is to have the crew be there upon landing to assist in stabilizing the balloon. Depending on where the balloon has landed a crowd of big and small children and spectators have gathered. There are always plenty of questions and offers to help pack up. As Fred Grotenhuis, owner and pilot for Balloonatics & Aeronuts says, “I am too old to refuse help.” So the pilot, crew, passengers and volunteers all get to work packing the envelope back into the bag it came out of and loading the equipment back on the truck. A tradition in ballooning is to leave a bottle of champagne for the landowner who graciously allows the hot air balloon to land. For the passengers and crew the adventure ends with a champagne picnic or brunch and good conversation about the adventure!