The second largest North American summer hot air balloon festival returned to New Jersey this past weekend.
There’s something enchanting about ascending above a crowd of 165,000 cheering people until they’re tiny rainbow specks behind you and miles of lush forests, fields, and the sun dipping below mountains lie before you — even if you are in an 86-foot tall replica of the Dark Lord while dangling from a wicker basket.
The enchantment of it all is exactly why Frank Wechter, of Albuquerque, has been a hot air balloon pilot for the past 40 years. Wechter was one of about 100 pilots in hot air balloons at the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning in Readington July 24-26. The festival is the second largest summer event of its kind in North America.
Just watching the balloons float through the air is awe-inspiring. Perhaps that’s why thousands of people travel from far and wide — including China, Brazil, and Belgium — to both see and pilot hot air balloons.
The 33rd annual event drew in record-breaking crowds to see 100 balloons take flight at Solberg Airport after dawn and before dusk Friday through Sunday, according to the event’s executive director Howard Freeman.
The irresistible draw of hot air balloons
Wechter’s experience with hot air balloons began shortly after he learned to fly planes when he was just 16 years old.
At the time, Wechter owned a movie theater and stayed up late to show the Rocky Horror Picture Show on a Saturday night.
He hadn’t gone to bed yet when he went to fetch the Sunday paper in his bathrobe and flip flops the next morning, and a hot air ballooner descended into his yard. The pilot called out for Wechter to hold down the balloon.
He complied with his unexpected guest and, after 10 minutes of chatting, was invited for a ride.
“I said ‘hold on, let me go inside and put pants on,'” Wechter recalled. But the pilot said that if he let go, his chance at a ride would be gone.
Wechter got into the balloon and flew over the Rio Grande levy and went boozing all day with the pilot.
“The next day, I wrote a check for $4,750 for a balloon,” he said. “One year later, I got my balloon.”
Creating a community
Many years later, Wechter is still piloting hot air balloons — in places all over the world, from Thailand to Turkey.
He owns a hot air balloon modeled after the red Angry Bird, but Wechter is one of three pilots for the Belgian Michel Lambert’s LucasFilm-authorized Darth Vader balloon. Lambert also owns a Yoda-shaped balloon that was piloted at the festival.
While piloting hot air balloons is fun — Wechter has become a bit of an expert at it in the past 10 years — the best part of it is the community it builds, he said.
Accompanying him on his all-volunteer crew of over 14 people were a Merck scientist, a French-Canadian family Wechter befriended at a similar event seven years ago, and New Jersey moms and teenagers.
One of those moms was lucky enough to get to ride with Wechter in the balloon — after four years of being a volunteer crewmember with her teenage kids.
“I was so frightened initially about the idea of [going up in the balloon that] my heart was pounding,” she said. “But once we got up in the air, it just seemed very peaceful. Literally sailing over the sunset was just breathtaking.”
The flight only lasted about 30 minutes — which, Wechter said, is normal for specially shaped balloons.
Wechter landed on a golf course, after discovering his intended landing spot was inhabited by some very shocked sheep.
Two golfers were equally taken aback when the hole next to theirs became a landing pad.
“We were in awe — we kind of forgot about our golf game,” said Patricia Berran, of Tewksbury. “We’re not sure how to score this game.”
Meanwhile, moms and kids who chased the balloon to its landing place eagerly rushed in to help fold up the 660-pound balloon. The children did some legwork before Wechter’s crew arrived to take the balloon and basket — weighing in at 500 pounds — back to the fairgrounds.
After folks snapped pictures with the basket and Wechter, packing up the supplies took an hour or more — double the time it takes to set up. But the impressions the encounter made will last longer.
Brennan said she and her fellow golfer made plans to go golfing during the festival in 2016 — in hopes of catching more glimpses of the balloons.