August 18, 2008

At the mercy of the winds

Filed under: transportation — origamifreak @ 1:30 am
Tags: , , , , ,

When Rose lived in San Diego, we’d sit on her back deck in the evening, drinking wine and watching balloons come up the hill from Del Mar and land in the field behind her house. On these occasions she would sometimes say that she’d like to go up in a balloon, herself, one day.

So, back in April when her tickets to visit had been purchased, I decided it was time to arrange a surprise. There are actually several balloon companies in upstate NY. I found lists of them at the Dansville Balloon Rally website. There were some good suggestions about questions to ask at the Balloon Federation of America website. There are apparently scams to watch out for, described at this website. And there are periodic stories of accidents in the news, so this is clearly not an activity to be taken lightly.  Power lines are often involved.

In the end I went with the closest, which was the Liberty Balloon Company. They not only do festivals and rides, but also apparently train and certify pilots. I contacted them by phone and had a nice chat with Carroll Teitsworth, who answered all of my questions and gave me lots of information about what to expect, how to schedule a ride, etc. Because of dependence on weather, it’s a good idea to have a few backup dates/times set up; on average 50% of scheduled flights are scrubbed.

It was hard to keep this a secret every time I spoke with Rose on the phone, but I managed it until she arrived in NY.

On the morning of the launch, I called at 4:30am to hear the recording saying whether we’d be able to go, or not. The answer was affirmative, so we got ourselves up and drove to meet Capt. Teitsworth in Canandaigua at 6am.

While we sat at a nearby picnic table, we watched him set up. The entire thing, balloon, gondola, and all, are really compact – he had carried them in a pickup, which was also the chase vehicle.

The balloon was one of the RE/MAX ones. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but sounds like the company helps subsidize the equipment. Later, the dairy farmers who helped us land wondered if we’d gotten the flight as a reward for buying a house!

When the balloon was unpacked and laid out properly, Capt. Teitsworth had us help hold it open with ropes so that a gas-powered fan could inflate it. Slowly he added heat with the burners so that it would stand upright. There was a little miscommunication with the designated chase guy, and he was late showing up. Fortunately another guy who works with them showed up to see if there’d be a launch, and he stuck around helping (holding the rope to steady the top of the balloon). Eventually the intended chaser arrived, and the second guy got to go to his last day at Xerox, rather than stepping in as a replacement. I sort-of got the impression that he’d rather do the chasing than Xeroxing, but then I probably would, too!

When the balloon was ready, Rose and I clambered in (this is a classically ungraceful operation, as we’d been warned, many times), and we lifted off.

As we lifted, I suddenly remembered I don’t like heights. Doh! Urgh. Capt. Teitsworth said to look out, not down, and that helped. Rose, on the other hand, was having a grand time taking all kinds of vertigo-inducing pictures, both up and down.

I pointed my camera down (without looking, myself) and also took one:

In search of a wind heading east, we went up high (Rose peeked at the altimeter, which apparently said something like “10,000”). Capt. Teitsworth didn’t want to drift into Lake Ontario or metropolitan Rochester. From that height, even with the haze, there were some pretty good views of Roseland Water Park,

and Canandaigua Lake.

At one point we could even see the sun reflecting off the Syracuse skyline.

Once we’d headed far enough east, Capt. Teitsworth brought us down low and we skimmed a field. We were so low that the gondola was plowing through the taller wildflowers. For fun our pilot leaned out and picked me a tall dandelion and Rose a Queen Anne’s Lace.

Then we went about the height of the surrounding tree tops and headed north.

Rose asked if Capt. Teitsworth had ever flown at the level of migrating geese? He said, “Yes,” in fact he once flew over Montezuma in the spring, and when he landed, a Dept. of Conservation guy met him, apologetically explaining that he was following up on a call from a concerned lady, who had reported “a balloon out chasing the geese.” Apparently those guys have to follow up on every call, no matter how bizarre (and unfounded).

Along the way we went over a horse, who was so fascinated it came out of a barn and stood in the doorway for a long time, staring at our diminishing shape.

We passed over some guys working on a gas line, who asked where we were going? “Don’t know!” was Rose’s answer, and it was true, although Capt. Teitsworth and the chase guy had a general idea.

It was fun to watch our shadow following us.

We passed over a stream and Capt. Teitsworth suggested taking a picture of our reflection.

After about an hour aloft we started scoping out places to land. This is a lot harder than it sounds, because if there aren’t power lines in the way, there are other obstacles. At one point we thought we might manage a yard with dog running around – the guy inside was really excited and ran out, taking photos; he said he hadn’t ever seen a balloon up close, before. In the end we didn’t risk it, because there was a well casing sticking out of the lawn that we might bump into.

We passed over several places that turned out to have power lines in inconvenient locations, and led the poor chase guy on many detours and false alarms, where he’d park and come running out to catch our line, only to have to schlep back to the truck and follow us to another location.

At one point it looked like we might land in a farmyard, viewed by a herd of Holsteins, all staring up at us. Capt. Teitsworth was concerned about startling them and radioed our chase guy to ask the owners who’d come out to see what was going on. In the end there was another power line in the way. It was fun to see the whole crowd of cows turn in unison to watch us go by. I was reminded of the urban legend of pilots in the Falklands buzzing penguins just to watch them fall over en masse.

Eventually we landed at a neighbor’s house, in the front yard of 4746 Kyte Rd, Shortsville NY. The residents weren’t at home, but the dairy farmers assured us they wouldn’t mind and helped us land and deflate the balloon. They had ballooned themselves, a few times, and thought maybe we’d gotten the ride as a reward for a real estate purchase.

Overall, we’d traveled about 10 miles from the launch point. Once the balloon was disassembled and put back into the truck, Capt. Teitsworth and the chase guy pulled out some bottles of sparkling grape juice and left one at the door of the owners of the yard we’d used.

At this point we received “official” certificates with the following text:


Be it known to all whom these presents shall come,

that on (Date)


did, with great courage and heroic aplomb demonstrate cool resourcefulness in the face of imminent death, disfigurement, and destruction. Furthermore, he/she did show exemplary depth of character in gaining victory over no small amount of fear and trepidation. He/She did, at said time and place, ascend into the troposphere of the planet Earth, in the gondola of a hot-air balloon. Approximately one hour later, he/she did return to Terra Firma in the Town of (Town). This awesome deed did scientifically verify the strength, virture, and integrity of the art of Hot Air Ballooning.

This incredible aeronautical feat is witnessed and attested by

(Carrol G. Teitsworth), Pilot-in-command.

All due respect, courtesies, admiration, and deference shall be afforded the bearer of this document from this day forth and forever more.

I asked, and apparently the wording had originated for bungee jumping and been modified to fit ballooning.

Upon pouring our grape juice, we were regaled with a story that when balloons were newly invented in France, some peasants had attacked one when it landed, thinking it was an intruder from another world. From then on, we were told, balloonists started carrying champagne to show farmers that they were actually from Earth, and even France, and therefore not Dangerous Aliens. From there the legend grew into a tradition, and balloonists apparently now celebrate a successful flight with champagne, and give some to the property owners to thank them for use of the landing spot.

While this story is delightful, I was skeptical, so afterwards I went online and checked it out. Although the event of French peasants attacking the first hydrogen balloon is well-documented (Gonesse, 27 August 1783),

and there are several references to early flights being toasted with champagne aloft, I found no solid references to wine or champagne being carried in France to comfort those on the ground. Amusingly, I did find references to the French government distributing notices that balloons were not a threat after the Gonesse incident.

However, in this reference, there is a story that wine was shared by French hydrogen balloon pilot Jean-Pierre Blanchard with an illiterate farmer in America to quell his fears (New Jersey, January 9, 1793). (see page 35)

If I were a North American balloonist, I think perhaps I’d use this version of the story, since it has a nice local flavor, especially in the Northeast, and it appears to be better documented, at least as far as I can find.

While chatting over our sparkling juice, Rose mentioned that she used to watch the balloons from Del Mar, and that they usually held a large number of people. Capt. Teitsworth pulled out a photo album, explaining that he’d sold a large-basket balloon to someone in the San Diego area a few decades ago, and pointed to a picture, asking if she recognized it? She thought she did. So, in the end, it appears that one of the balloons she’d been watching all those years ago had belonged to our pilot, here in Upstate NY.

On the drive home, Rose said she’d enjoyed the flight, and started speculating about what she should drop hints about next…



  1. Hi,

    So Good, I have passed it along…

    Comment by havasurose — August 18, 2008 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

  2. […] has been visiting for the past 2 weeks. Among other things, we’ve managed to squeeze in a balloon flight, three nights in Manhattan, and a lunch cruise on Canandaigua Lake. I didn’t take a complete […]

    Pingback by Air, land, and water « Manifolds — August 18, 2008 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

  3. Attacked as Aliens? Nowadays I suppose you would have to look out for interested animals coming to investigate if you landed in a pasture. What fun! My folks have taken a balloon ride over Letchworth in the fall when the trees are full of color.
    Some Day…

    Comment by jpm14 — August 21, 2008 @ 7:31 am | Reply

  4. My one-time hot air balloon ride was in East Africe. We flew over the heads of giraffes. They heard us but could not find us (they never dreamed of looking up!). But when they finally did, they took off. And yes, we did celebrate with champagne afterwards when we were safely back on the ground.

    Comment by Clarissa — August 21, 2008 @ 5:22 pm | Reply

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