Last year, the balloons left the ground.
Not fully, but far enough to give patrons of the Great Smoky Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival, which returns to the Townsend Visitor Center on Saturday, a taste of the wonder that first captured Ray Fournier’s heart in 1990. As the owner and chief pilot of What’s Up Ballooning, as well as the balloon coordinator for Saturday’s festival, he knew that even tethered rides 30 feet off the ground were enough to inspire awe in those who paid to go there.
This year, the number of balloons has increased (to 12), and the rides will continue after dark — during the balloon glow, in fact. For a little extra, festival-goers can buy a ticket for a tethered ride on some of the balloons that will be illuminated after dusk, casting the field beside the Visitor Center in an otherworldly light.
“Think of the effect light has on your eyes: When you’re standing in the dark, your pupils dilate to let in more light, but if you’re in the balloon with the burners going, your pupils are going to constrict,” Fournier told The Daily Times this week. “When you’re standing in the light looking out into the dark, it’s going to have the opposite effect, and it’s going to accentuate the light coming off the other balloons.”
The inaugural Hot Air Balloon Festival took place in 2017 — conceived as a way to capitalize on the total solar eclipse that took place in August of that year. The brainchild of Mark Oldham, of Dancing Bear Lodge and Appalachian Bistro, and Chad Rochelle, of Parkside Realty and Dogwood Cabins, it was designed to augment the experience of those who had booked rooms in “the Peaceful Side of the Smokies” to watch the moon hide the sun for a full minute and 28 seconds. When they contacted Blount Partnership Director of Tourism Kim Mitchell, she threw the weight of her organization behind it, recognizing that an event in the slower end-of-summer weeks, when children are returning to school and family vacations have wrapped, would be an ideal annual activity.
By that point, many rooms, cabins and campsites in Townsend already were booked for the eclipse, and when the festival weekend rolled around, there were few beds to be found in the hamlet. During that first year, organizers brought in six balloons to the 10-acre site at the Townsend Visitors Center, and while the balloon glow in which the festival culminated was a spectacular sight, given the contrast of accelerant used to heat the air within brightly colored fabric, the balloons never left the ground. The biggest reason is the unpredictable terrain of the mountains, Fournier said, and the no-fly zone for inflatable aircraft over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“The venue is a beautiful spot, and it’s got fantastic views,” Fournier said. “But while we would love to do untethered rides, we’re too close to the park. But think of the backdrop of the Smokies, and especially with the ‘Missing Link’ of the Foothills Parkway being open. Think about the people who will be up on the parkway at night and how they’ll see the gathering of balloons glowing in the dark.
“It’s a very unique place for this, and having the balloons tethered to the ground gives a longer experience for the people who come. It’s one thing to go to a balloon festival, set up the balloons and have them fly away. You get 20 minutes to a half hour of them inflating, but then they fly off up into the sky, and you only have a limited amount of time until they fly off out of sight. Here, you’ve got the noise and the light and all of the pieces that go along with the balloon excitement. They stay right there, and the people get a greater experience.”
Safety is paramount for Fournier and his fellow balloonists: They don’t fly in any inclement weather, or even if bad weather is predicted. They don’t fly if there are thunderstorms within 100 miles. They don’t fly if the winds are excessive. Such details are some of the information that the pilots will share with festival-goers. The balloonists will share information about everything from the envelopes (the actual fabric that holds the air) to the burners (the unit that propels heat inside the envelope) to the parachute valves (the vent atop the envelope that allows hot air to escape at a controlled rate, allowing the balloonist to control altitude) to the varying levels of wind currents in the atmosphere that steer a balloon’s direction. And because the festival is a rain-or-shine event, the balloons still will be the centerpiece, even if the envelopes stay packed away.
And while the balloons are the main draw, there are plenty of other things to see and do at the festival. Live entertainment and music begin when the gates open at 3 p.m. and continue until 8 p.m.; regional and local craft vendors will peddle their wares; activities for kids, including a rock wall, face painting, “trackless train” rides and water balloon fights, will take place; almost two dozen food and concession trucks will sell everything from hot dogs and barbecue to snow cones and coffee; a craft beer tent will offer libations for adults; and a Nine Lakes Wine Country tasting will be offered for an extra charge.
Logistically, Fournier hopes, the addition of extra balloons will accommodate the demand for tethered rides. (Ride tickets sold out last year, but parking and ride passes can be purchased in advance through the festival’s website.) The sign-up table is closer to the balloon field this year, he added, and the tethered rides some balloons will offer during the glow will give the entire event a three-dimensional feel.
“There won’t be just balloons on the ground glowing, but going up and down at the same time,” he said.
It will, he’s confident, inspire some who attend to fall in love with ballooning, just as he did. Fournier — who ended up marrying the pilot who took him on his first balloon ride and now runs What’s Up Ballooning with her — was living in New Hampshire at the time. It was another few years before he started his training in August 1997, but less than a year later, he had obtained his private license. He was licensed to fly commercially in June 1999, marking the end of a two-year journey that takes most pilots roughly six years to master.
“My wife told me and tells anybody that comes along that buying the balloon is just the down payment,” he said with a laugh. “You can buy a used system for the low teens (thousands of dollars), and that’s a decent system to learn on, but then you’ve got to get the chase vehicle, support, the trailer, your crew, the whole big bugaboo. But everyone has a passion. You just have to ask yourself, what is it you want to do?
“For me, I knew as soon as I left the ground this is what I wanted. There was no question it was a passion, and every chance I had, I was flying. Money-wise, you’re talking probably the same if you were to have a boat, in terms of maintenance and inspections and repairs. But then you’ve got to figure out, where are you going to get the propane? Where are you going to store all of this stuff? Because not everybody is going to let you store 40 gallons of propane and a balloon in their enclosed storage unit.”
Which is why, for many festival-goers, Saturday’s tethered rides will be as close as they ever come to the feeling that still makes Fournier’s heart sing every time he leaves the ground. And to partake in the beauty that is the glow of 12 envelopes lit up against the backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains?
“It’s unique. It’s just magic. There’s no other experience like it,” he said. “I’m going to be 60 this year, and I’ve been around the block a few times, but there are very few experiences like being in a hot air balloon. There’s no sensation of liftoff: If you close your eyes, you won’t even know you’ve left the ground. It’s just special to me, and that’s why I do it for a living.”