One festival, that's coordinated by Balloonatics Aeronuts in Phillipsburg, the Hot Air Balloon Festival at the Warren County Farmers Fairbrings roughly 30 pilots together each year for some exciting competition and camaraderie.
One of the most popular and unusual races at this balloon festival is the Bicycle Balloon Race. In this race a bicyclist rides in the balloon and the bike gets strapped to the outside of the basket. Pilots need to pass a particular landmark at which point they can land and let the biker out. At that point the biker races back to the fairground.
Leslie Bensley, executive director of Morris County Tourism Bureau had an opportunity to hitch a ride with balloonmeister Fred Grotenhuis during the competition. No one could have prepared me for what has truly become the most breathtaking experience of my life - hot air ballooning, she says about the experience. Not only was I there to enjoy the most magnificent evening ride but I also participated in the bicycle race and all the excitement that went along with it! Up, down, fast, slow and then landing on what seemed like a postage stamp. A must for those that have yet to try it.
Another popular annual balloon festivalis the Quick Chek Festival of Ballooning. This show has numerous hot air balloons, including plenty of special shapes, vendors and concerts.
For those wishing to go aloft, the entire ballooning experience is quite an adventure. Upon arriving at the launch field the pilot and crew begin to unload the basket and the balloon, called the envelope. Passengers can participate in putting together basket and balloon and then help with the inflation. When the balloon stands up the pilot will instruct the passenger to add some weight by hopping in - before he takes off by himself. And within a few minutes the balloon is completely inflated and stabilized. Then it is time to take off. The balloon rises ever so gently off the ground, that at first the passengers don't even realize there is nothing but air below.
When the balloon lifts the wind then dictates the direction and speed of the flight. The pilot can steer the balloon by changing altitude hoping to find a favorable wind! They can only steer the balloon with the wind conditions given that morning or evening. The wind pushes the balloon along and the adventure begins over the blossoming trees in the spring, the farmers' crops in the summer and the kaleidoscope of fall foliage in the autumn.
During the flight the pilot is in communication with the crew on the ground. The game plan is to have the crew be there upon landing to assist in stabilizing the balloon. In some cases, depending on where the balloonlands, a crowd of big and small children and spectators can gather.
There are always plenty of questions and offers to help pack up. As Fred Grotenhuis, owner and pilot for Balloonatics Aeronuts says, "I am too old to refuse help." So the pilot, crew, passengers and volunteers all get to work packing the envelope back into the bag it came out of and loading the equipment back on the truck. A tradition in ballooning is to leave a bottle of champagne for the landowner who graciously allows the hot air balloon to land. For the passengers and crew the adventure ends with a champagne picnic or brunch and good conversation about the adventure!