Go with the flow, especially if it’s a light breeze, could be the mantra for the more than 80 pilots who will fly 100 balloons at the 47th annual Adirondack Balloon Festival, which kicks off this evening and continues through Sunday.
“It’s a hobby,” said pilot Robert Dicks of Philadelphia. “Every flight is different. It’s marvelous. You fly over a city, a farm field. It’s like the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ Everyone waves. It’s a fun thing.”
Dicks has been flying — he also has his fixed wing plane license — for 35 years. And this festival, which is regarded as the largest on the East Coast, is one of about 10 that he goes to every year. It’s not a cheap hobby.
A balloon can measure 77,000 cubic feet to 105,000 cubic feet (most of the festival’s balloons are these big ones, he said) and cost between $25,000 and $50,000. Most people only own one, which they truck to events, but pilots like John Cavin, who comes to the festival from Florida, owns 10 balloons because he has a balloon-making business, said Erin Coker, the event co-organizer and photographer.
To learn to fly a balloon, a pilot must take Federal Aviation Administration-licensed classes to get the basics, Dicks said.
“But to get really good takes three to four years as you learn the wind currents,” he said. “Because you can’t direct the balloon, you can only control going up or down. All air currents are different at different elevations. You always hope for a less breezy day to go less than 10 knots.”
Modern balloons use propane. The first balloons used hydrogen — remember the 1937 Hindenburg disaster — and helium, in which pilots would throw over sand bags to elevate. These days to descend, a pilot turns a valve to let out the gas. And that can be tricky.
“For the festival, we’ll go maybe three to four miles and go up to 5,000 feet but we’ll be looking for a landing spot, some large field,” Dicks said. “We’ll watch how fast we go based on the ground speed and how the wind flows across the surface. We’ll look for calm — sunny or overcast doesn’t matter.”
Then it’s the skill of the pilot that determines how fast they’ll be coming in and how easy the landing will be. Dicks is also one of the pilots who is willing to take passengers — the basket can carry up to 750 pounds and is FAA regulated. Prices can range from $195 to $225 and must be booked in advance.
Although most pilots are coming from the East Coast, other pilots, such as Andrew Holly, are coming from as far as Great Britain and bringing newcomers Simbaloo the Lion, Duma the Cheetah and Adelaid the Koala balloons; Allycorn the Unicorn is debuting, too, and was made in Brazil for local pilots Todd and Scott Monahan. Photographing the event is also a test for professionals.
“It’s a bit overwhelming with so much going on at the field,” Coker said. “I’ve been covering the event for 21 years, first for the Post-Star and then since 2013 when I became officially affiliated with the festival. You need to use wide angle and zoom lenses and you need to focus. I’ve also been up in a plane about twelve times to get aerial shots. That was exciting.”
He’s especially proud that many of his pictures are now part of several organizations’ calendars that better promote the festival.
The festival’s opening flight will be at 5:15 p.m. Thursday from Crandall Park (600 Glen St.) with 20 balloons. On Friday, 100 balloons are expected to launch starting at 5 p.m. from the Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport in Queensbury. Saturday and Sunday, launches begin at 6:30 a.m. The famous “glow” concludes the festival at 5 p.m. Sunday at Crandall Park. As many as 150,000 people are expected to attend throughout the weekend.
Besides the balloons, musical entertainment, food vendors and kids’ activities, the 10th annual Zonta Craft Show is celebrating the group’s 100th year with 50 vendors. Zonta Club of Glens Falls is an advocacy action center for women.
A full schedule of events is at www.adirondackballoonfest.org.
Adirondack Balloon Festival
WHEN: Thursday , Sept. 19 – Sunday, Sept. 22
WHERE: Crandall Park (Glens Falls); Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport (Queensbury) HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 518-222-4593; www.adirondackballoonfest.org