LAKELAND — Springtime in Florida is known for beaches, festivals and spring training games. Hot air balloon enthusiasts hope to add balloon festivals to that list since the balmy weather makes it an ideal time for liftoff.
“We are very blessed in Florida to have great weather,” said Kurt Peterson, a Seffner-based pilot of a balloon called Black Diamond. “We have more good flight days than bad this time of year.”
You can find a balloonist like Peterson to take you up and away on a private ride. Or you can seek out one of the many festivals that have been popping up in the area lately.
Recent temperatures drew nearly 35 balloons from across the country and Canada to the Up Up and Away Florida Hot Air Balloon Festival at the Sun 'n Fun Aerospace Expo in Lakeland last month. The cooler weather was the attraction.
“This temperature is perfect for ballooning,” said Kristie Darling, crew chief for the Big oh! balloon from Cleveland, N.C. “It’s in the 40s now. It doesn’t take much to warm the air. If it’s 90 degrees, you really have to cook it to get lift.”
Company sponsor Bimbo sent its 105-foot Osito balloon and world-class pilot John Petrehn from Houston. Because it was a corporate balloon in the image of the cute bear from Bimbo Bakeries, the Osito wasn’t allowed to take off or carry passengers. But the towering figure was quite the spectacle on the ground before flights and during the nightly balloon glows.
The typical charge for a flight in a balloon is $250 per person, weather permitting. Depending on winds, flights generally last an hour. Though balloonists can fly any time, the optimum months for ballooning in Florida are October to March.
Flying in a balloon is almost a spiritual experience, a total connection to nature. The balloon quickly rose from the ground and was swept in the direction of the wind. We leveled off at 2,000 feet. It was very quiet. All we heard was the sound of our hearts beating, the wind and the burner firing. We slowly dropped to just above the tree lines. Nesting birds screeched to protect their eggs and people came out of their houses to wave up at us.
Being totally at the mercy of the winds, balloon rides are one-way trips. Looking down, we saw 22 chase vehicles following us. Each balloon pilot has their own chase crew. They use GPS on the pilot’s phone and a laptop or tablet in the chase vehicle to find their balloon after it lands.
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But how do they land? Balloon pilots like to find a large, flat, open space to gently land on. If that’s not available, they find any open spot and hope for the best.
Mine was the latter. The wind blew us away from an open field. Our pilot spotted the small grassy yard of a rural mobile home and went for it. Our basket crashed through leafy tree limbs and we quickly came down in a three-bump hard landing. We were all safe, the pilot kept the balloon material from going into the trees and we celebrated our successful flight with a traditional Champagne toast.
You can hire a balloonist to take you on a flight, but festivals expand the experience into weekend fun. Besides balloon glows and picturesque ascensions, the Lakeland festival also included a kids’ zone, archery tag, helicopter rides, silk aerial performances, a food court, a full liquor garden and vendors. Live music featured Tito Puente Jr.
Recent snow storms in the North caused Central Florida wind shears of 14 to 17 miles per hour in Lakeland, which prevented balloons from flying Friday and Saturday.
“That’s ballooning," said a downhearted Beth Hamilton, pilot of the Last One balloon from Hobe Sound, just north of West Palm Beach. “It all depends on the weather.”
Up Up and Away Florida managing director Chris Antonious said balloons safely fly with winds up to 7 miles per hour. “We want them to fly to keep guests happy, but safety first.”
Without balloon flights, Sun 'n Fun pitched in to add aerobatic flyovers and reduced admission to the Florida Air Museum. In addition, all guests holding a festival ticket for those days were offered free admission to the festival on Sunday, and they got quite a show.
At 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., 22 balloons took 15 minutes to set up, light their burners and inflate. One by one they gently floated away like glowing embers. Balloons could be seen in the sky until they set down nearly one hour after takeoff.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for," Hamilton said. "It’s gorgeous flying.”
This year, four festivals were scheduled for February, March and April. The Villages Balloon Festival northwest of Orlando at the Villages Polo Club was held in early February — and is already on the books for 2021. The Up Up and Away Florida Hot Air Balloon Festival at the Sun 'n Fun Expo Campus in Lakeland is in negotiation for a 2021 date. The Tallahassee Balloon Festival at the North Florida Fair in Tallahassee is March 20 and 21. And the Miami Balloon Festival at the Miami Homestead General Aviation Airport is April 3 through 5.
Know that flights are not guaranteed and balloons are not up in the air at all times. If conditions allow, free-flying balloons are only seen at flyouts and the nightly balloon glows. Festival activities fill the time between flights and before the evening balloon glows.
Festivals provide a list of participating pilots and individuals interested in flying are responsible for contacting them on their own. Stay overnight near the festival grounds for the duration of the festival and keep in contact with your pilot for a better chance to fly.
“Florida really does have ideal climate for hot air ballooning,” Antonious said. "Sun 'n Fun’s mission is to build on aviation. Hot air ballooning is a big part of that.”
If you go
Visit the Balloon Federation of America website to find independent balloonists and nearby festivals at bfa.net.