Late last century, I had the opportunity to experience a most memorable adventure: a hot air balloon ride over the vineyards of Napa Valley. It was a spectacular voyage that I will always hold dear in my book of memories.
Ever since that flight, a bit of curiosity has nibbled at me. Why? Upon boarding the carriage, the pilot introduced himself-- sharing his roots to Statesville, North Carolina. As you can imagine, I was most amazed to find a fellow Tarheel so far across the country impassioned by such an interesting sport. A little inquisition revealed the existence of major ties between the balloon industry and North Carolina.
Ballooning is the oldest form of aviation and air travel known to man. It was the Montgolfier brothers who took the first flight in 1783 over Annonay, France. The first passengers were a sheep, rooster, and duck on a mere 8 minute flight over the gardens of Versailles for the entertainment of King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette.
Fast forward. In 1965, the development of modern hot air ballooning began as a collaboration between the US Air Force and Raven Industries. It spread to North Carolina where Bill Meadows and Tracy Barnes made the first flight from Statesville. Soon thereafter, Barnes formed The Balloon Works which designed and manufactured hot air balloons, turning it into a safe and affordable sport.
In 1969, Meadows established, Balloon Ascensions, LTD, as a flight training and promotion company. Soon to follow, was the creation of the National Balloon Rally which celebrated its 44th Anniversary this year. Presently, it carries the name, Carolina BallonFest. It is an advent that is held the third weekend of every October in Statesville, North Carolina.
This past weekend, that same nibbling curiosity led me to attend.
The Statesville Regional Airport plays home to this event. Its cascading hillside was abuzz with thousands of spectators and a myriad of vendors. The optimal times to launch a balloon is right before the day’s dawn and sunset. The stillness and temperature of the air being paramount to the successful nature of the flight. The gregarious group was patiently awaiting the moment of the afternoon’s hopeful ascent.
The usual menu of American carnival cuisine was readily available: corn dogs, funnel cakes, chicken wings, barbecue, and sweet tea. Children’s rides, assorted craft-work, and face painters were also present. Oddly enough, the collection of dealers also included replacement window representatives, bathtub re-fitters, and insurance agents…..
I sat on the bare grass and waited. The warm autumn sun moved quickly from one side of my shoulders to the other. Then, it was time. The balloonists began to arrive in a posse of sorts. Down the hill they rolled, each taking their place on the open field. The crowd commenced to stir about. -- Those lounging in their lawn chairs sprung to their feet to take in every morsel of the pending experience.
Very quickly, I moved to the center of this activity. I was able to be among the balloonists as they assembled their balloons, carriages, and positioned their fans. Within a matter of a few minutes the blasting of the hot air was heard. This euphony of “swoosh” seamed to encapsulate the entire field.
Then, it happened.
Over 30 hot air balloons began to inflate. Pilots and their passengers were boarding their wicker carriages. Bustling of participants and spectators was rampant. The energy of the event seemed to be exploding--it was simply amazing!
With great zeal, I started snapping photos of everything around me. Every moment seemed more spectacular than the last. It was all moving so quickly that I did not have time to even gasp!
Within seconds, the army of balloons were all assail. It was not a calculated departure of a single balloon; but rather, a holus-bolus launch igniting the sky with a kaleidoscope of color and pattern. The field of spectators stood in awe.--Emotions were raw.
Immediately, the memory of my flight over Napa Valley sprung to my mind. I stood as still as a bronze statue. My eyes were fixed towards the sky. The rush of freedom this sport kindles came back to me.