May 2 – Spectacular views, heavy traffic, an abundance of propane and colorful nylon and polyester were part of the scene this weekend at the Western Carolina State Fairgrounds, as the Aiken Hot Air Balloon Festival drew thousands visitors and hundreds of riders.
The weather posed a challenge on Sunday, with afternoon lightning bringing all flying activity to a halt. Saturday’s offerings included a ride up to around 75 to 80 feet in the air, with tethers in place. Eight balloons were part of the exhibit, but not all carried passengers aloft.
“We don’t do it very often, but it’s really cool,” said Conlan Kitts, a volunteer who was part of the Civil Air Patrol crew, helping to keep equipment under control and ready for use. .
“I didn’t hear a lot of grumbling except comments about the long queues,” said a local visitor, after spending a few hours at the scene on Saturday evening. “I felt like people were having a good time, especially listening to music. I saw kids dancing, adults playing music. Getting out of the parking lot was bad.”
Professional pilots on the scene included Robert Willbanks, of Lavonia, Georgia, whose experience includes nearly 35 years in the business. Safety, he said, is the first consideration, “and the calmer the wind, the safer it is, so we like to have winds under 10 miles per hour and no bad weather in the area. “.
This meant good conditions on Saturday afternoon and evening, but no flying on Sunday, as local lightning occurred several times on Sunday afternoon.
Willbanks also offered some basics on security and capacity. “Each balloon is attached with four points, to keep it centered in the geographic area of approximately 200 feet by 200 feet.”
The weight, he says, varies by balloon (“the size of the envelope”). “The average balloon is about 100,000 cubic feet and has the capacity to lift about 1,800 pounds, including equipment and passengers. Normally we’re insured for four passengers, plus the pilot, and we like to limit the weight passengers at around 600 pounds sterling.”
This limit “allows the ability to maneuver, because we are fundamentally dependent on heat, and if you fly in hot weather, the balloon is less efficient, requires more heat to create lift, and … we don’t want to burn the fabric, so we try to keep our operating temperatures between 200 and 210 degrees or less.”
Colder weather, he said, means it’s easier to get the ball airborne and increases weight capacity.
As for the reactions of novice cyclists, Willbanks said: “For the most part, people are very captivated by what they see as soon as they cross the treeline. It’s like looking at a beautiful area.”
Catherine Reason of Civil Air Patrol said she and her fellow cadets had various responsibilities and received a basic briefing to prepare for the festival. “We’ve had a lot of questions about the balloons – how do they work, how do the tie lines work and how do the balloon parts work,” she said. “We were just there to volunteer to help the riders and help the people around us. We do whatever they tell us, basically, and we all love it.”
She added: “All the caddies had a great time. Everyone I spoke to said they would if we did it again next year.”
One audience member recalled enjoying the event very much, but also hearing comments from people who were annoyed by the slow, heavy traffic and were turned away after paying for admission and parking. “Seems like it was a big disappointment to a lot of people, but I had a great time,” he said.