BY LARISSA FORESE
Spending my morning gliding through the sky, Ohio-based hot air balloon pilot Greg Miller helped me climb into the basket, but not before I helped him get his balloon ready for the air. As Mr. Miller poured gasoline into the fans, inflating the balloon, I held on tight to a rope while stepping on a wire, allowing the balloon to rise off the ground.
Before I knew it, he gave me the signal to release the rope and back away from the balloon as he continued to release a stream of fire, really propane, to help it take its form. As the enormous blue, pink and purple balloon came to life, I had to step back and really take in the moment. I was about to be above the trees and what seemed to me, on top of the world.
If you have never been in a hot air balloon or to the Quick Check New Jersey Festival of Ballooning I suggest you move it to the top of your bucket list. Seeing the world from a different perspective is something everyone should experience at least once in their life.
Not only is being thousands of feet in the air thrilling, but getting to know your pilot is half the journey. Stepping into a basket and floating into the air with a stranger is a unique experience to say the least, but that being said, I would not change my first balloon ride one bit — it did help that Mr. Miller is a firefighter back home in Ohio so I knew I was in good hands.
We were the first balloon off the ground as the wind whisked us away from the starting point. Not really knowing what to expect, a million questions flew through my mind: Where were we going to land? Could people see us in the distance? Will whomever’s property we land on be okay with three strangers in a balloon dropping out of the sky?
Instead of worrying for the hour-long journey, I decided to talk to Mr. Miller. I quickly learned that his almost 20 years of experience started with him buying his mother a ride for her birthday. Two balloons and 18 years later, Mr. Miller along with his ground crew, Kenny, were experiencing their first New Jersey Festival of Ballooning just like me.
Together, we were taking in the same aerial sights of the Solberg Airport and Readington for the first time. From the tree tops to the people waving to us down below to everyone stopping, staring and pulling out their phones to snap a photo to the deer playing in the creek. It was as magical as it sounds.
Adding to the experience, Mr. Miller and I touched on two topics I am sure every Ohio native loves to converse about: LeBron James and the Cleveland Browns.
Being an avid sports fan and reporter, I, of course asked about LeBron’s move to Los Angeles, the NBA Championship in 2016 and Johnny Manziel’s journey to the worst football team in the Canadian Football League.
But what intrigued me the most about my pilot was his own journey to owning two balloons and his first time at this balloon festival.
He talked about his elevation, dealing with the air traffic and how flying a balloon is the purest form of navigation. There is no GPS, just coordinates and Kenny, who followed us via pickup truck on the local roads, to help us find a safe place to land.
STICKING THE LANDING
We rode the wind for an hour and eventually decided a parking lot a few miles up the road would be the perfect landing destination. For those who do not know the logistics of landing a balloon, it is a lot more intricate than one would imagine.
It is not as simple as landing on an open patch of land, there is a thought process to touching down on the ground. Mr. Miller entrusted in myself and my photographer to find a place away from cable and phone wires, along with light poles and other lamps. But the most attractive aspect of a perfect landing spot? Dry land.
Something I learned on my trip that may seem obvious to some is keeping the balloon dry. In New Jersey the weather has to be just perfect, if the balloon is wet it takes hours to dry and may even hinder a flight or two.
As I bent my knees to soften the impact, the balloon kissed the ground and just like that my aerial adventure was over.
Sticking true to the attractive nature of a hot air balloon, everyone greeted us with open arms asking about the ride and taking photos of Mr. Miller inflating the balloon with propane before we were able to take it down completely.
Before we could step up and pack the balloon away we had to maneuver to the side as another balloonist decided to follow in our tracks by landing in the same parking lot.
I had to wait to exit the balloon, that way it did not rocket back to the clouds and possibly send Mr. Miller back to Ohio. But my favorite part of this entire excursion was being able to set it up and bring it down. As it deflated, I was able to wrap up the balloon and really be part of the process and truly make a contribution for my special ride.
As we rolled up the balloon and moved the basket into the trailer, we headed back to the airport. Conversation was just as easy in the car as it was up in the air and I thanked Mr. Miller and his co-pilot Kenny as we parted ways.
Being up in a balloon may not be for everyone, but for those who I may have convinced that this will be your next adventure in life, I highly suggest asking to be a part of the conversation. Whether that entails setting it up, taking the balloon down, or simply striking up small talk with your pilot, try to squeeze the most out of your adventure as you can, it will only make it that much better.
And for those who are still considered skeptics, the ride is a lot smoother than you may think. Lifting off and setting down is a lot more gentle than probably most of the car rides you have taken. If you’re afraid of heights but still may take on the adventure, just look straight out to the distance and soak in the view.
And if I still failed to convince you, I suggest you attend the balloon festival regardless, it is much more than just gliding thousands of feet above the ground. Trust me, I guarantee you have never seen anything like multiple balloons taking off and fading away in the distance.
If I still failed to turn you into a believer, there are specialty balloons that make for good aesthetics and will amaze you that something so large can depict something so simple. Like a blue dog, an Elvis Presley, a Queen’s Guard or even a giant saxophone, whether you whisk into the sky or not, this event has something for everyone.