Piloting a hot air balloon takes skill, patience and an innate understanding of the weather.
A faint breeze that blew across the Townsend Visitors Center on Saturday evening was no relief from the intense heat, but it was just enough to gently bob a purple balloon tethered near Bonnie Love’s aircraft.
“We have to respect Mother Nature, so when you start to see that balloon come up, you’ll see the big balloons come up,” Love said shortly before 6 p.m. as crowds swelled at Great Smoky Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival’s check-in line. “A balloon functions like a big sail and the wind will push you toward the ground.”
A half hour and a few mighty swooshes of propane gas later, the hillside burst to life as 12 massive balloons filled the sky.
Thousands packed the center for the third annual event. Many were there to enjoy the children’s attractions, the food and live entertainment.
Others visited the Nine Lakes Wine Country wine tasting event.
For a few hundred lucky ticket-holders, it was a rare chance to take a five-minute trip on the “Beauty in the Sky,” “Sky Candy,” “the Blue Moon” and other aircraft whose names are as colorful as their brightly hued envelopes.
Hot air balloons have been a cultural icon since 1783, when French aviators Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent D’Arlandes made their first flight over Paris.
A decade later, another Frenchman, Jean Pierre Blanchard, launched the first domestic flight from Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail.
Sharing her first ride with her grandson, Kaden Babineau, and her friends Kim and Louis Bayline, was a dream come true for Seymour resident Vicki Grobeman.
“This is my bucket list checkoff,” Grobeman said. “It was awesome.”
Others, like Johnnie Lee Harvest of Oak Ridge, made a spur of the moment decision to take their first flight.
Harvest and his brother, Gregory, looked excited as they eyed the field.
“I had no intention of taking a flight,” Johnnie Lee Harvest said. “I was just here for the festival and decided, ‘Why not?’”
Love understands that joy. It’s been a quarter of a century since a random encounter changed her life, but she remembers it like it was yesterday.
She grinned as a passenger in another balloon raised his fists and posed in excitement.
“I saw a hot air balloon float cross the road on my way to work one morning, in Abingdon, Virginia,” Love said. “I decided to take a ride.”
Within a year, she earned her pilot’s license. She also met her husband, Richard Love, in the ballooning community.
Her enthusiasm also rubbed off on family members who serve as her crew, including her sister, Candy Knepper, who soon earned her own pilot’s license.
Love calls her blue, pink and maroon balloon, “In the Buff.”
At only 105,000 cubic square feet, it’s smaller than many commercial balloons, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My first flight was in a 180,000-cubic foot balloon,” Love said. “When I came out, I said I was getting a little baby balloon.”
Love and Knepper enjoy contouring, or flying just over the treetops, which allows them to enjoy the scenery.
“It’s wonderful,” Love said. “It’s exciting. You get to see everything. It’s very peaceful, and depending where we are flying by the treetops, you can hear the birds and the water. Everybody should try it at least once. It’s truly the bird’s eye view.”
Balloon meister Ray Fournier also met his wife, pilot Mary Ann Fournier, in the community.
The couple own two balloons, including the “Lucky Charm.”
“It used to be called the “‘Irish Rover,’” he said.
The longtime Lynryrd Skynyrd fan didn’t have a hard time finding the right name for his second aircraft.
“My friend said, ‘Hey, why don’t you call it ‘The Breeze?’” Fournier said.
Fournier said the crews expected to tether about 400 flights on Saturday, rising only to about 40 feet off of the ground.
That was plenty for Ana Medina.
The Knoxville resident decided a flight would be the perfect way for her daughter, Ana Vasquez, to celebrate her 14th birthday.
“We were trying to find something fun for her birthday, and we found it on an events page,” Medina said.
She was as excited as a child as they walked through the field snapping selfies in front of balloons before they took off on Dale and Katrina Pattyn’s “Hyggelig.”
Standing nearly six stories high, the rainbow-themed aircraft made a beautiful backdrop.
“They are bigger than I thought they were going to be.” Medina said. “This is definitely proof of love, because I am afraid of them.”
She had no trouble describing the flight afterward.
“It was awesome but it was hot,” Medina said.