With its rolling hills, sparkling streams and peaceful woodlands, Central Jersey is a hub of hot air ballooning, where travelers make the trip to the region to float along with the wind over Somerset and Hunterdon counties.
However, every year, during the last weekend in July, a lot more than a few travelers make their way to Central Jersey to celebrate over 100 hot air balloons from around the world — about 165,000 people.
The QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning, which is the largest summertime hot air balloon and music festival in North America, will be held this year from July 24 to 26 at Solberg Airport in Readington.
Twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, the balloons will take to the sky with pilots from 21 states and four countries at the 33rd annual festival. However, a few balloons will stand out from the crowd — an 86-foot-tall Darth Vader, a 62-foot-tall Master Yoda, a 121-foot-tall seahorse and a five-story-tall PNC American flag, the world’s largest free-flying American flag that was built following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
One-hundred and sixty-five thousand people in attendance is no shock to Russ Mensch, media director for the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning.
“There is just this magic of ballooning. One balloon up in the sky is beautiful, but 100 are spectacular,” he said. “They all start out in an empty field in duffel bags and when they’re up in the air, there is this ‘aweness’ and it even holds true for those of us that are working there. We are in the middle of everything and we just stop and look up at it — it’s that appealing.”
There’s a lot more to do at the festival than watch hot air balloons, however. Each day, headlining performers and rising stars will take to the main concert stage, and each night fireworks will light up the sky. Also, visitors can head to the JCP&L Family Fun Center, an air-conditioned QuickChek store and hospitality tent, or check out the crafters, food vendors, amusement rides and interactive exhibits.
“We have to think about what there is to do for the other seven-and-a-half hours for our guests, so it is pretty much a state fair with a balloon atmosphere and hundreds of crafters and vendors,” said Mensch. “People actually say that there is too much going on and they can’t see it all.”
However, the last weekend in July isn’t the only time to spot a balloon, or even ride a balloon, in Central Jersey. In the region, the hot air ballooning season is generally May through October, which offers the most consistently ideal weather conditions for balloon flights.
Because of the updrafts and downdrafts of sunrise and sunset, these are the times when hot air balloons can take off. These times of day also lend themselves well to stellar views, which will include small cities, villages, agricultural and wooded areas, forests, lakes, streams, grain fields and wildlife.
“Our visitors will see rolling hills, the Delaware River and even the New York City and Philadelphia skylines, but it’s all rural countryside,” said Kevin Olsen, owner of Alexandria Balloon Flights in the Pittstown section of Alexandria. “People will literally be picking leaves from the tops of the trees.”
Generally, the entire hot air ballooning experience will span two to three hours from the initial meeting time, with flights ranging from 45 minutes to two hours in the air depending on wind and weather conditions, potential landing sites, remaining daylight and other factors.
Anywhere from two to 20 miles will be covered with altitudes ranging from right above the treetops to thousands of feet in the air.
Olsen said customers have told him that their hot air balloon ride was one of the highlights of their lives since they are seeing the world from an entirely new perspective, literally skimming the tops of trees and becoming one with nature.
Although those who are afraid of heights may be hesitant to hot air balloon, Jon Radowski, owner of Above and Beyond Ballooning in Readington, said that in his 17 years of flying balloons, he has never had a passenger panic, even those who said they were afraid of heights.
“All passengers who express some hesitation due to a perceived fear of heights come away very surprised at the lack of sensation of height,” Radowski said. “Everyone who thinks they are afraid of heights instead finds they are just afraid of falling from high places. There is no possibility of being able to fall out of the basket, so it is a very stable and secure feeling.”
The same misconception applies for motion sickness. Mike Zemlanchanko, owner of Hunterdon Ballooning, said that since there really is no motion because the balloon is floating along with the wind, there is no motion sickness.
“There is less motion than an elevator ride,” Zemlanchanko said. “You could light a candle in a hot air balloon and it wouldn’t go out. The wind is at a slow, steady pace.”
Zemlanchanko said that although many are apprehensive before their first ride and worried about jostling, they tend to be happily surprised that the ride is much calmer and smoother than they imagined because the conditions needed to fly are very stable.
However, because hot air ballooning is highly weather dependent, cancellations happen about 30 percent of the time, most occurring during afternoon flights when weather tends to be less cooperative.
Wind speed must be less than 8 to 10 mph, the ground cannot be wet and there must be no thunderstorm activity within 100 miles in order for hot air balloons to fly.
“It is unlike flying in any other type of aircraft, and it has been described as like being on top of the world,” said Radowski. “There are many ways to explain the experience, but none can accurately describe it. Every flight is a different adventure from the last, with the landing site being unknown until we get there. Being in the sky in a silent, floating bubble of air is a magical feeling.”
QUICKCHEK N.J. FESTIVAL OF BALLOONING
Where: Solberg Airport; 39 Thor-Solberg Road, Whitehouse Station
When: July 24 to 26
Contact: balloonfestival.com; 1-800-HOT-AIR-9
Tickets: Purchase here for $24 for adults and $15 for kids or purchase at QuickChek to avoid convenience fees
HOT AIR BALLOONING IN CENTRAL JERSEY
Above & Beyond Ballooning at Solberg Airport, 39 Thor-Solberg Road, Whitehouse Station; njhotair.com or 908-208-1869
Alexandria Balloon Flights at 48 Sky Manor Road, Pittstown; njballooning.com or 908-479-4878
Hunterdon Ballooning at 111 Locktown Flemington Road, Flemington;hunterdonballooning.com or 908-788-5415