Up, Up, and Away

A balloon looms over a farm on McCurdy Road in Ossian.

Every year on Labor Day weekend, the municipal airport in Dansville, New York, is undoubtedly the most colorful place in the Empire State. This will be the 24th year that the Livingston County village of 4,800 is hosting the New York State Festival of Balloons. The excitement begins with a balloon glow just after dark on Thursday, September 1, and ends with the last of six planned weekend launches taking place Labor Day morning, September 4.

Over fifty balloonists – some almost as colorful as their balloons – converge on the airfield each day before dawn and dusk to unfold, inflate and ascend skyward in an orchestrated spectrum of brilliant nylon, drifting away in clusters like giant soap bubbles.

One such colorful balloonist is Cantown Hawk pilot, William Kuhns, of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Now 59, Bill has been flying hot air balloons since 1983, and this marks his 22nd year of participation in the Dansville festival. Bill’s greatest ballooning feat was crossing the continent of Australia in 16 days, reaching an air speed of 100 mph at times, in 1988. According to Bill, “You don’t feel any wind at all. Because you’re traveling at the same speed as the wind, it actually feels calm.” His closest call occurred when he landed in a pasture with a bull that became aggravated by his descending balloon. Bill had to “hit the burner” to hop the balloon over the fence to safety.

In order to fly a hot air balloon, a license with a Lighter Than Air With Airborne Heater certificate rating – or Balloon Pilot License – must be issued by the Federal Aviation Agency, (FAA). FAA rules also regulate balloon launches from airports, and festival flights are sometimes scrapped if weather conditions are uncooperative. Prior to each launch, a pilots’ meeting is held to appraise conditions and determine whether they comply with FAA requirements. Last year, three launches were cancelled because wind speeds exceeded the 8 mph maximum takeoff-and-landing limit on an otherwise beautiful weekend. One of the cancelled flights was my own.

Balloons vary in size from 20,000 to over 200,000 cubic feet in volume. The colorful fabric is rip-stop nylon, which can melt, but will not burn. Melt holes can occur during inflation, but are not a safety issue once a balloon is fully inflated. A certified technician is required to make any balloon repairs.

Inflating a balloon takes three to four people, sometimes more depending on the balloon’s size and the wind speed. Powerful electric blowers begin the inflation process until the balloon has opened sufficiently to fire the burner. Burners are fueled with liquid propane gas and most balloons carry 20 to 30 gallons aboard the gondola. Gondolas can carry from one to eight passengers, but four-passenger baskets seem to be the average. Most gondolas are made from wicker and weigh about 200 pounds. Balloons are usually custom-made; prices can range from $20,000 to $80,000 for a complete outfit.

Payload is dependent on the ambient air temperature and a balloon’s size – the cooler the outside air, the more lift. The temperature inside the balloon, which provides that lift, is limited to a maximum of 225 degrees. Ideal ballooning conditions occur when cooler air lies below somewhat warmer air. Flying altitudes, which are regulated airspace, average between 500 and 2,000 feet, although a height of 13,000 feet is possible before requiring oxygen. The burner is periodically fired to increase a balloon’s altitude, and hot air is vented from the top to descend. Landing is controlled by alternately firing the burner – or venting the balloon – until the gondola gently touches down. Impact is usually low.

A balloon goes wherever the wind takes it; the pilot has no control over steering. He or she can, however, change altitudes in an effort to find wind currents of varying directions. This is what puts the challenge in the “Hounds and Hare” competition. The hare, which is the first balloon to launch, descends to a location of the pilot’s choosing where a cloth target is spread on the ground. The remaining balloons – or hounds – try to pursue the hare and drop weighted markers in an attempt to hit the target. Whoever comes closest, wins.

Most festival flights are about an hour in duration and travel distances of up to 10 miles. Some pilots offer rides, which cost around $150. A chase crew follows the balloon on the ground, and is sometimes in contact with the pilot by two-way radio. Upon landing, the balloon, its equipment, and passengers are loaded into the chase vehicle and returned to the festival site.

There is plenty to do between flights. The festival’s midway is complete with rides, food concessions, merchants and entertainment, including live music, a lumberjack competition, and of course, anchored balloon rides. Festival proceeds fund local organizations that serve the community such as Dansville’s Clara Barton Chapter of the American Red Cross and Mercy Flight. Downtown merchants and restaurants also promote their own sales and specialties, and sidewalk and yard sales abound. I was issued a pass to get into last year’s festival free of charge in order to cover this story. However, it cost me $600 to get out because I bought a chain saw and leaf blower from a midway vendor.

For information about this year’s event, see www.nysfob.com.

by John Adamski
John Adamski is a Dansville area resident and a freelance writer and photographer.

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