Cross one more off the bucket list. One of the most easily obtained “adventures of a lifetime,” is a hot-air balloon flight, available right here in Ithaca, and bound to give the adventuresome new perspectives on our fair city. Cautious friends claimed fear of heights, but, like comedian Steve Wright, my fear is of widths. So, feeling invincible, I signed on.
The weather forecast, very important, was favorable, and we’d met up on the grounds of Bostwick Road’s First Assembly of God Church, one of several local launching spots. Josh, a confidence-inspiring balloon wrangler and chase driver, unpacked the sturdy four-person rattan basket that would be our quarters for the next couple of hours, and spun out “Captain America,” forty or fifty feet of double- stitched, red, white, and blue nylon that, once inflated, would carry us aloft. It is one of three balloons that the company owns. I crept into the four-person rattan basket (there’s also a 12-person model) while pilot/owner Dar Farzad and two young passengers, Julie and Bob, held open the lower aperture of the balloon so a couple of heavy-duty fans could inflate it. Then the three of them joined me to be lifted skyward by gusts of air heated by a duo of propane burners. That part was pretty noisy. But once we had lifted a few hundred feet off the ground, all was remarkably peaceful and silent as we rose up over Tutelo Park (across from the Bostwick Road Ithaca city school bus garage) on a misty afternoon, letting gentle winds carry us where they would, across Floral Avenue, and headed for the lake.
Oh, the sights! We were able to trace the stream cascading from Buttermilk Falls through the inlet and into Cayuga Lake, view the lake, replete with marinas and sailboats, rowing crews working out on the inlet, and dragon boaters practicing near the southern end of the lake. People on the ground looked up and waved, and cars gave chase on a low-traffic early evening. We could see the “FOUND” sign on its Cherry Street home, wonder at the size of the sprawling Kendal and the Shops at Ithaca, and get a live perspective of Ithaca’s hills and forests, so much more detailed than a road map can offer. Best of all, though, was ballooning over trees, our basket just skimming their tops, flushing out deer. Flying over Newfield, Ithaca, and Lansing, propelled vertically by blasts of warmed air, and horizontally by the gentle breezes, was remarkably serene.
Four of us fit cozily into the balloon’s woven willow basket, its lower sides protected by well worn leather, its bottom clad in steel, and on its rim, thick suede bindings provided solid grips. A step-hole in the basket’s side provided a leg up for boarding passengers, though your correspondent, being less flexible than the youngsters, crept into the basket, waiting for it to be righted. Piece of cake. Dar Farzad, president and owner of Southern Tier Balloon Tours, tells me his oldest passenger has been in her nineties. I should hope to celebrate my 90th birthday aloft, but that’s a ways off. As you might expect, ballooning has a colorful history. The “drones of their time,” balloons were a logical follow-up to Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machines, which failed their first flight test in 1496 and never did get off the ground. While today’s balloons are made of double-stitched nylon dressed with an anti-porosity coating that holds in the hot air, the first balloon was made of coated paper stretched across a light wooden frame. Pilatre deRozier launched it in France in 1783, its passengers a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. When they remained aloft for fifteen minutes, it was assumed that air travel might have some possibilities. Soon after, the Montgolfier brothers made successful flights with rigid spheres made of fabric stretched over a light wooden frame, held over a fire to catch the smoke in the fabric sac. It was only later understood that the hot air and not the smoke gave the balloons lift. Balloons were used by the French for air intelligence collection, and to prepare accurate battlefield maps in the 1794 Battle of Fleurus. During the Civil War, President Lincoln commissioned the Union Army Balloon Corps, which used them for reconnaissance, and during World Wars I and II balloons were used by the allies to spy on the enemy. Useful as they were for reconnaissance, they had one great flaw: they were easy targets.
Dar Farzad is not only a licensed pilot, but has also been trained as an air traffic controller, which, he said, helps in his communications with the controllers at the Ithaca Airport who need to know of his whereabouts in flight. Clients ask if he’s a “real” pilot, to which he replies, “I hope so—can you land this balloon?” And while we were at the mercy of the winds for horizontal movement, he had full control of rise and fall. After an awe-inspiring flight, our landing choices included a quiet cul- de-sac and a backyard, but he brought us down in a Lansing clover field, where the land owner greeted us cordially, and where Josh, who had been following us in a van with trailer, packed up balloon and basket and drove the adventurers back to the launching site for a Champagne toast and recollections of the day’s highlights. Farzad, enamoured of balloons since he was a toddler, has built a life around ballooning, an enthusiasm he enjoys sharing with his customers. My co-flyers, a couple from Indianapolis, who were vacationing in the Finger Lakes, had caught sight of the balloon the day before as they toured Cayuga Lake on the tour boat Teal. Through the wonders of Google, they linked up with Southern Tier Balloon Tours, which happened to have an opening the following evening. They seemed thrilled with the experience. Farzad and his company are certified by the Federal Aeronautics Administration, and the company’s equipment receives regular rigorous inspections.
The flight itself, which costs $230 per person, usually runs between 45 to 70 minutes, and the whole experience takes two and a half to three hours. A chase crew, often composed of members of Cornell’s wrestling team, works with him year round, and flights can leave any morning or evening, so long as the weather is good. There’s no “season” for ballooning, Farzad said. “We’ll go up on Christmas day, if people want to fly.”•