Hot Air Ballooning - Hot Air Balloons Converge on Western New York for Annual Rally
It began just three and one-half decades ago; an invitational event for aviators of small aircraft to fly-in from around the region on a pre-determined date and time, to meet and share breakfast. Pilots of small aircraft would be invited to fly their craft to the Wellsville, NY airport on the outskirts of town for this proposed social event limited to just pilots of small aircraft.
Born in the spirit of the fanciful barnstorming adventure movie "The Great Waldo Pepper" (1975, starring Robert Redford,) "The Fly-in Breakfast" was born, an event hosted by the Wellsville (NY) Aviation Club.
A hanger at the modestly-sized Wellsville, NY airport was cleared and picnic tables were set-up. Aviators from western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania would get together on a pre-determined morning for socializing, story-telling and enjoy a breakfast.
Ray Stevens, a local businessman, had the notion of adding an air show to this get-together and it was a rousing success. Filling the small airport with spectators this event provided a reason to come visit their town as well as providing a modest boost to the local economy. The Great Wellsville Air Show was born.
The history of event tells that George Lewis later suggested adding hot air balloons to this Air Show, -an idea which received massive support. And in the barnstorming spirit of the movie "The Great Waldo Pepper" the prefix "The Great Wellsville~" was carried-over and "Balloon Rally" was added as the official name. The Great Wellsville Balloon Rally was born and It has been going strong every year since.
Games that Hot Air Balloonists Play
The Great Wellsville Balloon Rally hosts incentive games for the balloonist too, such as the 'key grab.'
A 'key' is secretly but prominently placed at the end of a very long pole, affixed in the expected flight path of the balloons atop of a plainly visible structure such as a silo or very tall tree. Each balloonist pilot is eager to spot it first and swoop down after it, adroitly maneuvering their craft so as to lean out of their rattan (wicker) gondola and snatch the key.
This 'key' is a token object that is redeemable for gifts and prizes from local & area merchants. Obviously, the 'key' is not always retrieved or for that matter, even found by the balloonists but one year I had the privilege of spotting a balloonist performing some maneuver at tree-top level and witnessed an object being retrieved from the end of a 20-feet long extended pole at the top of this dead tree. It was not until later I learned what I had witnessed.
-If I had only been carrying my camera that day!
Held every year on the third weekend of July in the village of Wellsville, NY, the participating balloonists provide a Friday evening launch at approximately 6-PM, and two launches on each of the next two days (6-AM and 6-PM, weather permitting and time approximate.)
We Love Hot Air Balloon Festivals!
There are many concession stands for food and drink, memorabilia for sale including Official T-Shirts and posters of the event, a street parade, contests and more.
This year's Rally (July 16th, 17th 18th, 2010) was another success despite some inclement weather that cancelled the Saturday evening launch. The winds were slightly higher than optimal all weekend long and the Friday launch was going to be left to "pilot's discretion." Delaying their decision to fly or no-fly to well past the intended 6PM launch time, this could be particularly worrisome as sunset was fast approaching.
Just before the final pilot's meeting, a 'pieball' balloon (vernacular avionics term for "pilot-inflated balloon aloft") is launched. This is a maybe 3-feet diameter balloon that provides a visual assessment for wind speeds, direction, cross-winds and any thermal inversions that may stop a balloon from ascending.
For every launch, there of course needs to be a successful landing. Delaying the okay to launch too late into the evening presents problems as dusk rapidly approaches. The 'Chase Vehicle' (support & crew) must follow the their respective balloon and retrieve it from wherever the pilot has safely landed.
Hot Air Balloons Beware!
RED ZONES: where to NOT land a hot air balloon
- natural obstacles
- known hostile landowner's property, other
these aside, landing a hot air balloon should not be done in darkness either.
There are known 'red zones' where landing a balloon is either unsafe due to natural obstacles (swamps, trees, manmade or natural structures, fences, or populated areas.)
In the case of farmland or open fields, some property owners have expressed no desire or even outright hostility to accommodate such a landing. Such reasoning may be for concerns about crop damage or disruption of domestic livestock, etc.
For safety reasons these 'red zones' are implicitely avoided except for life-or-death situations that requires immediate landing.
Hospitality Gifts from Hot Air Balloon Pilot/Crew
Hot Air Balloonists still carry-on the tradition of bringing a bottle of champagne to share with the landowner upon whose property they have trespassed. Legend is that when hot air balloons were still very new and virtually unheard of, the large object that had the roaring sound like a fire-breathing dragon dropping out of the sky and depositing men-like creatures caused local panic. They could be demons! The champagne eased the respective land-owners' fears and would accept these other-worldly aviator-tresspassers as men (and the offering of alcohol allegedly caused the landowners to lower their pitchforks as well!)
Still, a fair number of them did launch at around 7:30PM and provided us with an excellent show and photo opportunity. We were invited to ride with the Chase Vehicle for our favorite balloon, had they decided to launch. But it was rapidly approaching our son's bedtime and it had been an exhausting day of travel. We had to leave the event for our accommodation.
Great Wellsville Balloon Rally: The Early Years
I used to attend this annual event years ago when I lived in the region, arriving around 5:30AM and more-or-less staying the entire weekend. I would be walking around and mingling with the pilots and crew as if I were one of them. Balloons going up with the throaty roar of the burners that sounds like a fire-breathing dragon of lore, each balloon in turn took flight into the sky. In the past, spectators were not explicitly restricted from the air field launch zone. In recent years for safety and insurance reasons, spectators are restricted from the immediate launch zone.
From my previous years attendance I already knew some of the pilots and am somewhat familiar with their individual balloons. One of my favorite is from right here in Ontario, Canada; the SKY TURKEY.
(image by author) The original Sky Turkey (undated photograph, c. early 1990s)
This year after some 8-years absence, I approached the crew of Sky Turkey from the barrier of the fence and re-introduced myself. Within minutes we were like old friends again and my wife, child and I obtained 'pit passes' to enter the pilot/crew area and sit with them.
The weather Friday evening was looking questionable and it was nearly 7:30 before the decision of "pilot's discretion" to launch was given.
A number of balloons did set-up and launch, but a few others, including our friends at Sky Turkey, decided against it. As it was, balloons that preceded them had pulled their canopy out onto the grassy field and would have obstructed Sky Turkey's timely deployment. Minutes mattered now, as the sun was nearly setting on the horizon. Apart of mild disappointment that our favorite balloon decided to not launch, the rampant excitement of the over one dozen balloons that did launch was indescribable!
We were literally underneath several balloons and got to help guide the balloon during the critical early inflation stage, before igniting the burners. Careful to not step upon any part of the delicate silky cloth canopy, we would stand next to the partially-inflated balloon of our immediate neighbors and using our hands (note image above, on left,) guide it up off the ground.
One of the first balloons to set upright and launch was the BP balloon, on the far side of the pilot's field. Yeah, -it's the same BP. Being fair here, these people of the BP Balloon are not associated with the Oil Spill Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico but still, the applause was slightly and strangely subdued during their lift-off and assent.
There were several whispered comments made about the petroleum giant BP and their flagging clean-up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. Some in our group pointed out several patched sections of the BP balloon and there were several quiet and uncomfortable moments of introspection amongst the pilots and crew. As hot air balloon pilots, a hole in your balloon means you either cannot fly today or you are already falling to earth.
I broke the tension with a jibe that if the BP balloon starts to leak, '...that it would take them at least 89 days to get it patched,' striking a parody of the time it has taken BP to stop the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.
There was a hearty round of laughter from all and for the time being, all uncomfortable feelings with BP were dismissed and forgiven. Such is the way of aviators.
I took over 200 photographs this day, it is not possible to share them all here. I wish that I could.
Great Wellsville Balloon Rally, the Second Day
We returned Saturday evening around 6:30, later than promised the previous day, but we sort of already knew that the evening launch was not going to happen. It was slightly windier than the day before, the air was charged and inclement-looking weather was appearing from the north.
Beastly hot in western New York state this summer so far (and all of the eastern US and Canada, for that matter,) we again sought shade near our new friends on pilot's field.
They said that could have used us that morning for the 6-AM launch. If my son Alexander had been there they would put him to work helping pull-out the canopy. What a thrill this would have been for our son! But he is 5-years old and we were staying at my father's place some 12 miles away, so they understood. Maybe next year he can volunteer in the early A.M. in this endeavor.
We visited and swapped stories, traded e-mail addresses and more-or-less were waiting for the inevitable announcement that the Saturday evening launch would be canceled. The verdict came; there was heavy rain and lightning several towns over and headed our way; the event for the evening was canceled. The spectators figured this out as well and a hasty but controlled exodus to the parking lots ensued.
This year's Great Wellsville Balloon Rally hosted over 30 balloons and it was good to see many returning favorites from years gone by.
We bid our goodbyes to our new friends and quickly headed across the pilot's field to access the shuttle bus. We needed to return to the parking lot across town where we left our car. The waiting bus that we boarded only had three seats available; basically we were pre-boarded ahead of maybe two dozen people also standing in line for the next available bus.
A violent thunderstorm came some 45-minutes later with torrential downpour and virtually no visibility. This only lasted about five minutes and during this rainy tempest the setting sun was shining eerily bright through the downpour, casting bizarre horizontally-layered shadows across the highway and fields.
A brilliant rainbow was formed thereafter; perhaps a promise of better weather for the next day, Sunday July 18th. Sunday would be the final day of Balloon Rally and of our vacation and as such, it would also be the day we would be heading for home.
We left with hopes that Sunday would provide clear windless blue skies and two more chances for the aviators of The Great Wellsville Balloon Rally to share their tales, launch their balloons and brighten the western New York skies with their colors and the roar of dragon's breath.
(all images by author)