N.J. Balloon Festival was a barometer for the weekend’s wild weather

The 115-foot hot air balloon tribute to the Jersey Shore Recovery effort, Flighthouse, lay prone on the Solberg-Hunterdon air field, unable to take to the sky for Saturday’s second ascension event. Evening wind conditions grounded all balloon flights during Day Two of the three-day 31st annual QuikChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning.

Crews struggled to maintain control as several balloons, including a 105-foot Elvis, Pea-Nut the Elephant and Flighthouse were briefly inflated to entertain record crowds. But by 7:30 p.m., a red flag confirmed unsafe flight status, deflating hopes for a sunset ride.

“We will always be cautious and err on the side of safety,” said festival spokesperson, Russ Mensch.

A weekend storm system from the west brought sustained winds over seven miles per hour by Saturday afternoon. By 5 p.m. Sunday, the same storm had already dumped three inches of rain water on Readington Township and would continue to rain for another hour.

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While New Jerseyans may be stronger than any storm, hot air balloons are delicate aircraft, vulnerable to the elements.


Why flights were cancelled

In the “science of ballooning”, optimal times for flight launch are an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, when the winds are at their calmest, Mensch explained. Wind speeds over seven miles an hour are considered too dangerous to launch balloon flights, because it is too difficult for pilots to control their craft.

The festival’s signature Balloon Glow, held Saturday night also suffered from the wind. A highlight of the event, Balloon Glow participants remain grounded adjacent to the main concert stage while periodically lighting up the balloon interiors with propane bursts. At the 6 p.m. pilot briefing, 10 balloons had planned to participate. In the end, only three during were alight as 80s soft rockers, REO Speedwagon took festival attendees on a flight of nostalgia.

Sunday, too, saw the cancellation of its sunset ascension but for a different reason. Heavy rains all day let up in time for flight, but created muddy conditions unsuitable for flight. Organizers call it a “mud year”, and noted that this year was one of the worst in the festival’s history.


A perfect beginning

Early festival attendees lucked out with perfect conditions all day Friday and Saturday morning. Day two’s sunrise ascension was one of the best ever, said Larry Konash, the festival’s Balloonmeister.

Whatever calm winds were present Saturday morning were in the favor of Jim Rodrigue, a 12-year veteran of the festival. The Lewiston, Maine native took first place in the event’s “Hound and Hare” competition. The Hare balloon takes off 15 minutes before the rest of the pack, or Hounds. A big, red X marks the spot where the Hare lands and the other balloonists attempt to hit that target with a weighted beanbag. Whomever is closest wins.

Rodrigue’s passion for ballooning is literally written all over his “history leg”, a tattoo record of all of the hot air balloons he has flown. His love for the flying machines ignited in 1996 when he first helmed a propaned-fueled burner. “Hook, line and sinker – that was it,” Rodrigue recalled.

He went through two years of pilot’s training, acquiring his private license in 1999 and followed by a commercial license in 2000. The commercial license helps mitigate the costs of what can be a very expensive hobby. A new balloon system can cost upwards of $35,000, he explained. Many enthusiasts buy used equipment and some, like Rodrigue, have even built their own balloons. He is now passing on his knowledge and love of ballooning to his daughter.


Beyond balloons

Though the top festival draw for many is the chance to see more than 100 hot air balloons fill the sky, the hours in between and after were filled with amusement rides, food, cycling competitions and even a human cannon ball. Music, too, has long been a key component of the event. Each day attendees enjoyed several live concerts, culminating with headlining acts: Blues Traveller (Friday), REO Speedwagon (Saturday) and Big & Rich (Sunday).

Weather may have effected flight, but not turnout. “We had one of our all-time, if not the all-time record crowd,” stated festival executive producer, Howard Freeman. Organizers estimate that more than 90,000 people came out on Saturday alone. Mensch said the weekend event brings an annual 42.7 million dollar boost to the state economy.

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