QuickChek NJ Hot Air Balloon Festival
There's something magical about balloon flight. Those big balls of color floating through the air, carrying passengers in nothing but a basket...it almost seems an impossibility that it would work. But it does work, and it's really a sight to see. I recently had a chance to get "up-close" access to the Balloon Festival in New Jersey and I'm as intrigued by these balloons as ever. I didn't go up in a balloon this time, but if I go to a festival again, I may just give it a try.
QuickChek NJ Festival of Ballooning
When I found the opportunity to go to a balloon festival near where I live, I jumped on it. Not only did I go, I signed up for a special photography excursion with Unique Photo in Fairfield, NJ, which allowed me access to the balloons right up close as they set up, inflated and launched. Many of the balloon owners even let me get inside the lining while they were inflating the balloons - they were either very kind or they were hoping for some unfortunate accident to occur to get rid of me and my camera.
According to the event website, the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning is the largest summertime hot air balloon and music festival in North America. The festival takes place annually at Solberg Airport in Readington, NJ. (I had never heard of this airport before, but I quickly grew to love it as it's next to a giant corn field....seriously.)
Tip: Even if you're just going on your own as an observer outside of the roped-off launch area, you can still get very close to the action, so it's worth it. Just get there early and secure your spot up front - crowds do gather quickly.
What the day was like
Getting there on time meant getting up at 4 a.m. and getting over to the event by 5:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The morning launch is set for 6:30 a.m., but they launched closer to 7:30 a.m. (Which gave me more time to take pix, so I didn't mind.) When I first arrived, the balloons and their teams were just getting there themselves. The field was a sea of vans, baskets, and balloons that were either laid out in a long string or spread out in a flat formation awaiting inflation. There were, of course, lots of people walking around waiting for that first cup of coffee to kick in. Did I mention how early this was?
Once all of the balloons and their teams arrived, the action began. Those flattened sheets of color started to rise slowly and come to life. People who paid for balloon rides started to come in and got the run-down from their guides on what to expect. One by one, each balloon started to take shape. One would start to go up in the air and then another, and another, and you think you'll enjoy this easy pace to observe each balloon and its ascent, but then all of the sudden, they all seemed to launch at once. You really needed to watch your step because there's much less space in the field to walk around as the balloons start taking up all of the space around you. Many of these balloons are actually in it to win it - it's a race, so you don't want to get in their way.
After the balloons started to take off and move farther away, those balloons that are there only for "show," like the US Flag, Darth Vader and Yoda, landed in a nearby field and were deflated. I have to say that was a little disappointing but, balloons like that are really for our entertainment and aren't going to win any races, so it makes sense. I still enjoyed seeing them for as long as I did.
In addition to the balloon launches, which occur Friday evening and then twice a day on Saturday and Sunday, there are many other vendors, carnival rides and concerts to enjoy. I also saw some outdoor yoga and a 5K running race on Sunday - great events for the whole family.
Even though you may have missed the NJ Balloon Festival in 2015 (July 24-26), you can check out other Balloon Festivals around the world.
Know before you go:
- Starting in June, you can easily buy festival tickets at any QuickChek location. General early admission was $20 this year, $24 general advance and then $35 at the gate.
- Get there EARLY - there's tons of traffic and packed parking. Do yourself a favor and arrange to get there long before you think you will need to.
- Make a note of where you parked. The entire area will look much different when you leave than when you arrived. So, find a way to remember your path. I realize this sounds like common sense, but I thought it was miraculous that I made it back to my car without wandering for an hour.
- The balloon launches happen Friday at 6:30 p.m., and then at 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Be flexible - they're not always on time.
- If you're there to capture great photos, bring a wide-angle lens. I don't own one (yet) but rented one. It's worth it for sure. I also used my standard zoom after most of the balloons launched, but I mostly used the 10-22mm wide angle lens.
Hot Air Balloon History (in case you're curious)
According to the National Balloon Museum (You didn't know that existed did you?), the first manned balloon flight took place on November 21, 1783 in Paris, France. (A few months before, they did a test run with a sheep a duck and a rooster.) To put this in context, the first successful airplane flight didn't come until 1903 with the Wright brothers. So, I would imagine that back then, ballooning must have seemed like the future of travel. That first balloon was made of ...get this...PAPER and silk and the two men who rode in it stood on a circular platform where they HAND-FED FIRE through the openings of the balloon's skirt. This death-defying act got them at least 500 feet in the air and about 5 1/2 miles away before they landed 25 minutes later. Soon after the fire-stoked method of lifting off in a balloon came hydrogen gas. This eventually lead to "airships" like the Hindenburg....we all know how that went and why we no longer use hydrogen for balloons.
Fast forward to what we know as modern-day hot-air ballooning, which can be traced back to 1960, when they used propane successfully and 3 years later, the very first U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship was held in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Now, a combination of helium and hot air are used for many balloon flights. You can read all about the history of ballooning here.