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Cloud Drifters: Let a Balloon Lift Your Spirits Over Chesapeake Country

Jul 01, 2016 02:33PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Joe Zentner

“As Icarus and Daedalus flew, the ploughman stopped his work to gaze, and the shepherd leaned on his staff and watched them, astonished at the sight, thinking they were gods who could cleave the air.”
—from Thomas Bulfinch’s Mythology

Imagine floating in near-total silence, drifting slowly over Anne Arundel County or the Mid-Shore while watching patches of green, brown, and blue merge, creating the illusion that it is the earth and not you that is moving. Your journey is similar to a dream, an airborne fantasy where loud ground noises are muffled and all motion slows. It is as though the earth is staging a slow-motion parade, and you are the only observer.

It wasn’t until the 1960s with the advent of synthetic fabrics and a system of efficiently burning propane to get aloft and to regulate the temperature thereafter that hot-air ballooning really took off.

Why the Interest in Ballooning?

At a time when many people seem addicted to personal watercraft or loud, off-road vehicles, ballooning is an environmentally harmonious activity. In a hot-air balloon, one neither terrorizes wildlife nor rends the air with raucous sounds. A balloonist travels largely at the mercy of the wind and in peace with nature.

It is an age-old childhood pastime: blowing iridescent soap bubbles, then watching them float away and wishing you could be on one, just for the fun of it. Ballooning may not exactly fulfill that wish, but today, as more people every year are discovering, it comes about as close as grown-ups can hope for.

From the vantage point of riding in a wicker basket and seeing things from beneath a seven-story-high balloon, the world seems transformed. The land shrinks to Lilliputian dimensions; horses run from this spectacle in the sky, while people peer up and wave. A balloonist can drift just above the treetops and see wildlife that cannot be seen from the ground. Viewed from the basket of a hot-air balloon, the world is halcyon, innocent. There is no sound when one is aloft, save for the occasional “whoosh” of the propane burner.

Even people petrified at the top of a tall ladder seldom experience fear when standing in a balloon basket. There’s no sensation of movement, because you’re moving together with the wind. There’s also no sensation of being parted from the ground. It’s like being in a museum and looking down at a model city laid out at your feet.


A Look Back

Balloon flight is the fulfillment of an age-old dream. It is the fantasy of Dorothy and Toto soaring with the Wizard over the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, and of Phileas Fogg crossing the English Channel at the start of his 80-day trip around the world.

Some 120 years before the Wright brothers etched their names into aviation history at Kitty Hawk, two French brothers accomplished a feat that may have been more noteworthy. Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier, paper makers from Annonay, France, observed that small containers rose in the fireplace of the family chateau outside Paris when the fireplace was lit. That gave them an idea.

The brothers began experimenting with smoke-filled balloons. Believing that smoke possessed some magical property, they tested several varieties, burning such items as old shoes and rotten meat.

The Montgolfiers settled on a combination of straw and wool (they did eventually come to realize that hot air alone is what provides upward thrust). The first manned hot-air balloon was built by the Montgolfier brothers and flown by intrepid volunteers Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arldes on November 21st, 1783, in France. (King Louis XVI had initially wanted the volunteers to be prisoners, whose sentences he’d commute if they survived the trip, but his attendants convinced him that the thrill of the first flight should not be wasted on mere ruffians.)

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the smoke balloon (heated by a fire on the ground) was a frequent county fair opening event. After the initial climb, the hot air cooled, and the rider then jumped from the balloon, praying that his parachute would open.

Hot-air balloons have played a distinctive role in history. A balloon smuggled French Republican statesman Leon Gambetta up and away from the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Balloons served as aerial barriers to help protect London from attacks by the German Luftwaffe during World War II.

The Ballooning Experience

Who can fly? Anyone who is in good physical condition, can stand for about an hour, is at least four feet tall and isn’t pregnant may take a ride in a balloon basket. An adult should accompany children under 12 years of age.

It is not uncommon for many people to express a fear of heights, or uneasiness about flying. That’s natural, especially if you’ve never been around a hot-air balloon. The truth is: from the basket of a balloon, there’s no sensation of movement, and, unless you look down, you’ll hardly realize you’re up in the air, or moving at all.

Riding in a balloon is like becoming a cloud. You meander through the air seemingly without a care in the world. At higher altitudes, it’s as though a huge carpet of scenery is being slowly unrolled beneath you. People who like speed probably won’t enjoy a balloon ride, since it is anything but fast. But if you care to mosey along, you’ll find a balloon ride to be most enjoyable.

After an hour or so of flight, the pilot will select a safe landing site and notify the crew of his intent to descend. The chase vehicle’s crew that follows the balloon during the flight will meet you at the landing site, help you out of the basket and begin deflating and packing up the balloon.

Part of the ballooning ritual has long involved champagne. After landing, the first sound often heard is in fact the pop of champagne corks. In the early days, aeronauts got into the habit of packing along bottles of champagne to placate pitchfork-bearing farmers who weren’t overly fond of trespassers on their property; over time, the habit became an engrained part of the ballooning tradition.
Balloon flights typically are offered twice a day. The morning flight departs at (or soon after) sunrise; the afternoon flight leaves approximately two hours before sunset. Balloon pilots prefer these times because winds then tend to be the calmest. The breezes will carry you over meandering streams and fields, as well as myriad wildlife, including red-tailed hawks, eagles, squirrels, and deer.

If you’ve ever seen a balloon in flight, you know it’s akin to something out of a fairy tale. To see a balloon above you is an exhilarating experience, to be sure. However, to ride in the basket of a balloon is to know freedom. In the film To Fly, regularly screened at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the opening scene shows a balloonist in colonial times.

As he is about to leave Mother Earth, he addresses the crowd that has gathered to cheer him on, proclaiming:

Until today,
Birds alone were meant to take to the sky,
But now,
Because of men like me,
All men of earth shall fly.
Beyond the clouds,
Twixt thunder and the sun.
Today, a new age has begun.

High in the heavens where Icarus flew, the quest to touch a rainbow continues in a manner stretching back more than 200 years. Shimmering like bubbles blowing in the air, hot-air balloons drift freely with nature, carrying with them those unhurried individuals who seek only sunshine and the wind’s gentle caress. The Annapolis area has never looked more beautiful. Enjoy.

Joe Zentner is a freelance writer. Articles prepared by him concerning the outdoors have appeared in various magazines, including Bassmaster and MotorHome.

Up, Up, and Away

For ballooning around Annapolis, contact:
Annapolis Balloon Rides
at 1-877-822-7484

Delmarva Balloon Rides,
located in Chester, at 301-814-3297 or

United States Hot Air Balloons
at 1-877-651-1764

Hot air balloons are registered aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration; as such they are subject to annual safety inspections. Pilots are required to be commercially rated (the highest rating available) and are tested under FAA rules every 24 months.