Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Flying Bear Flies Lighter Than Air

My first flight of any kind took place in a hot air balloon. It was 1980-something-or-other and I was slightly older than The Bear is now. Thus, it was only fitting for The Bear to get her first balloon ride as her age ticked over into double digits. This was made possible last Christmas when we received a gift certificate from Mom for the entire family to fly with the Liberty Balloon Company based south of Rochester, NY.

Thanks Mom!

Liberty Balloon Company is a family run business started in 1976 by Carroll Teitsworth. His sons, Lee and Lance, were raised with ballooning much as The Bear has been raised around airplanes. For our flight in N9095L (I suppose they don't call them "tail numbers"), Lee was our pilot and Lance crewed. These guys genuinely love what they do and it shows by the way they answer questions and interact with their passengers.

We met the Liberty Balloon folks in Castile, NY and followed them to the launch site, a small glade in a farmer's field. This launch site was chosen because it was northwest of Letchworth State Park and the wind was expected to carry us directly over the park.

A test balloon confirmed the wind direction. After a safety briefing, assembly of the balloon started in earnest.

Lee and Lance recruited The Bear to assist in filling the envelope with air. Here, Lance outfits The Bear with official ground crew gloves.

This experience pleased The Bear greatly.

The Bear bonded with our pilot, Lee, before going aloft. At the time, both were unaware that they had crossed paths a few years before.

Once the balloon was ready to go, we climbed into the basket without much ceremony (but with much awkwardness, like climbing into the back seat of a J-3 Cub). At first, the balloon was unstable on the ground, tipping back and forth as the wind worked against the envelope.

With a prolonged blast from the burners, we rose from the ground. As soon as we broke ground, the balloon stabilized.

We left Lance to clean up and begin the chase.

Our car is the one with the AOPA sticker.

Kristy seemed to be enjoy her second ride in a hot air balloon. The Upstate NY scenery was much more eye-catching than the flat suburban expanse of Holland, MI where she had her first hot air balloon experience circa 2002 (also courtesy of Mom - what's up with Mom and hot air balloons, anyway?)

As we drifted to the southeast, I studied the landscape of what was my "backyard" during the Le Roy years and commented aloud, "We're heading straight for Middle Falls in Letchworth."

Lee nodded with a twinkle in his eye while wearing an "I love it when a plan comes together" sort of smirk.

Photo taken at The Bear's school in 2013. The Bear is walking on the gold stripe in the teal coat with reflective trim.

As we neared the gorge, The Bear explained to Lee how a balloon company came to her school four years ago and partially inflated a hot air balloon envelope in the field house for the younger kids to explore.

Lee gave her a quizzical look. "Where do you go to school?" When she answered, Lee exclaimed, "That was me and my Dad!"

And then, we were over the gorge and descending rapidly.

Upper Falls, Letchworth State Park

The wind bore us to a portion of the Genesee River roughly halfway between Upper and Middle Falls.

The drop-off is Middle Falls

Lee brought the balloon down into the canyon. I have seen many photographs of balloons navigating the Letchworth gorge below the rim, but never thought I would experience it firsthand. Lee explained that Letchworth is a favorite destination of many east coast balloonists owing to the gorge's navigability.

Within moments, the bottom of our wicker basket was in contact with the surface of the river and the balloon was tracking north. Lee explained that, once sheltered in the gorge from the winds aloft, surface air moves along with the river current. Thus, we were able to drift north (downstream) while the prevailing wind was out of the northwest.

We drew quite a crowd. "Are you OK?" a man on the riverbank shouted. I gave a thumbs up and Lee assured him that we were fine. I don't think the fellow believed us and proceeded to explain why we clearly could not be fine.

Lee noted that the airflow in the gorge was carrying us toward the west bank of the river. We gained altitude momentarily to catch enough of the prevailing northwesterly wind to push us back toward the center of the river before descending again for another "splash and go" near the edge of Middle Falls.

"Ever hear about going over the falls in a barrel? How about a basket?" Lee asked.

And over we went, while camera flashes twinkled from the bluff overlooking the falls.

Middle Falls from a very unusual perspective

Then Lee put the coals to the balloon and we climbed steadily out of the canyon.

Back in the northwesterly wind, we left Letchworth behind and floated to the southeast over farm country. While skimming tree tops, Lee snagged some maple "helicopter" seeds and presented them to The Bear.

Lee and Lance coordinated to find a suitable landing site. The owner of the farm was thrilled to have us, indicating that ten years had passed since a balloon last landed on his property. To reach the yard, Lee needed to navigate around a stand of trees. Below tree top level, the wind pushed us toward the east, above tree top level, the wind pushed us in a more southerly direction. By working the balloon's altitude alternately higher and lower, Lee was able to track around the trees and zig-zag southeast toward the yard. He described the technique as being like tacking a sailboat, which I thought was particularly apt. 

For us, this was the flight of a lifetime and allowed us to explore one of our favorite local landmarks from the air in a manner that we could never accomplish by airplane. It may be tempting to describe this sort of flying as an art. In some ways, it is, but that is misleading. Our pilot demonstrated significant knowledge and skill. As Lee said to me while lining up on the landing field, "Using ailerons and rudder is just cheating."

For anyone local to Rochester interested in a balloon flight, I highly recommend Liberty Balloon Company. Lee and Lance not only know their craft well, but they made sure that everyone had a wonderful experience.

Sometimes, you just gotta fly 1783 style!


  1. Totally, completely awesome! Gotta do this...

    1. I highly recommend it! Give these guys a call - they're a great, local, family-owned business. They can't guarantee a flight through the gorge because the winds have to cooperate with the available launch sites. I think we got lucky. Still, I know that the Letchworth flights are something they do whenever they can.