"We Tried It" is a series in which VisitLancaster staff members go out and experience Lancaster County's tourism, entertainment and dining attractions and tell their stories.
That’s the first, and most unexpectedly noticeable, aspect of being a mile above the ground in a hot air balloon. Sure, the natural beauty of Lancaster County also plays an important part of the experience, but the ethereal silence grabs you in a way that other forms of flight can’t provide.
Having never gone up in a hot air balloon before, I arrived at the U.S Hot Air Balloon Team headquarters in Bird-in-Hand with an ample amount of trepidation. I’ve ridden as a passenger in planes big and small, but a wicker basket? Not quite. From a ground-level perspective, there’s a certain grace in watching a large balloon traipse across the sky. When I was a child, I would imagine that a giant of some sort had accidentally let go of their balloon, like a crying kid at a fair. As I grew older, I never lost the sense of wonder in stopping in my tracks to watch a hot air balloon slowly float along.
On the morning of my ascent, I arrived at the airfield at 6 a.m., when the sky is the perfect mixture of light and dark. After signing the perfunctory release form, I walked outside in time to see the crew members dutifully roll out the various balloons. The first two, I was told, were for groups ranging from four to eight people at a time, which featured baskets that could adequately hold at least one wheelchair. Two older couples on vacation from southern Texas could be heard squealing with equal parts delight and consternation. However, I wouldn’t be riding in the larger balloons of the fleet – I’d be riding with pilot Jake Frame in a basket roughly the size of a standard issue Whirlpool dryer. I learned quickly that I was in good hands. Frame is the grandson of Stan Hess, who originally founded the U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team back in 1986. First taking to the skies at age 3, Frame got his private pilot’s license at 16 and commercial license at 19, logging hundreds of hours in the sky.
When Frame beckoned me into the wicker basket, I knew I could leave any feelings of fear on the ground. Unlike riding in an airplane, there is no countdown or waiting period to prepare you for ascending – someone lets go of the rope, and you just go. Possibly due to waking up at 5 a.m. that morning, I didn’t even realize we were off of the ground until a few seconds after it happened. The Hot Air Balloon Team sets rides at roughly an hour long, which gives you more than enough time to see the multitude of sights available in Lancaster County and beyond. Since there were only two of us in the basket, we took to the skies quickly and with precision, with help from Frame’s expert maneuvering with both the ropes that allow hot air in and out, as well as the flames created in the burner unit. I ran through the obvious questions Frame probably fields with every first-timer – had anyone ever dropped a phone while taking selfies mid-flight?
“We’ve lost a couple cameras, but the one phone that someone dropped was actually recovered by one of our guys in the middle of a cornfield,” Frame replied.
How about people too scared to fly once they’re already up in the air?
“No one’s ever asked to come down early, or even gotten sick and thrown up in the middle of a ride.”
The Team’s website boasts a 100% success rate with mid-air wedding proposals, has that ever gotten weird?
“This one time, after the woman had already said yes, the guy started singing this song he had written…a cappella. I just stood there, because what else could I do?” Frame said through stifled laughter.
Frame told me that the vast majority of customers are tourists from surrounding states, though they get Lancaster residents from time to time, as well. After climbing at a rate of nearly 700 feet per minute, we reached a maximum altitude of a mile above the ground. From these heights, you can take in the full grandeur of rural Lancaster County, from the rolling hills of Ephrata to the patchwork farmland of Strasburg. Even further on the horizon is Three Mile Island, the tallest skyscrapers in Philadelphia and both the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers. Cars seem Matchbox-sized and a herd of cattle might as well be a colony of ants. It’s easy to appreciate the place you live when you’re on the ground and only comprehending the area directly in relation to yourself, but when you can see it all, a lasting appreciation develops.
As our hour winded down, Frame revealed the standard landing procedure for a hot air balloon, which basically amounts to “finding a farm owned by a friendly farmer.” Thankfully, landing in Gap makes that a very attainable prospect. As we landed our wicker basket at the end of a long driveway, a van pulled up and out came a Mennonite man and his four inquisitive young children. The man explained that, as the kids were eating breakfast and getting ready for school, they saw the bizarre sight of a balloon descending on their land and had to come out and investigate. As the trailer pulled up to pack the balloon away, all five of our new friends lent a hand to make sure it was properly packed.
As memorable as my time in the air was, it could very well be the image of strangers coming together for a simple task just after sunrise that will stick with me for the longest time. Even if the world sometimes seems like a place you want to escape from, there’s a certain kindness that will always exist when you come back down on solid ground.