It's been 30 years residents of Wyoming and nearby counties have seen his balloons flying over Letchworth State Park. While he's not quite sure how he's going to celebrate the milestone, Sean Quigley, no doubt, has something interesting on the burner.
Although Quigley didn't buy Balloons Over Letchworth until 1993, the business has been a staple at the park since 1987, and this past Memorial Day weekend marked the 16th year he’s hosted the Red, White & Blue Balloon Rally in the park. To help celebrate the 30 years of the business, a ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 6 p.m. July 27 at the launch site – upper/middle falls picnic area – at Letchworth State Park.
“It’s an unusual festival because the pilots pay for themselves,” Quigley said. “It’s like an old-fashioned rally where flyers just come in to launch.”
And those flyers come in from as far as Minnesota just for this experience.
“They all come and pay their own way, there is no sponsorship for the event. But the reason they come is because it’s Letchworth (State Park). It’s the most beautiful place along the East Coast to fly.”
Quigley has been enamored with balloons since he was a little kid – he would tie messages onto a balloon and let it go just to see if he will get a response and where it will come from. However, his first flight in a hot air balloon wasn’t until 1979, and it wasn’t until 1987 when he was able to buy his own.
The first free flight hot air balloon flight carrying a human was in Paris, France on Nov. 21, 1783, says the National Balloon Museum website. On Dec. 1, 1783, the first gas balloon was launched – also in Paris – and lasted approximately two-and-one-half hours and covered a distance of 25 miles. The first manned flight in America was on Jan. 9, 1793. However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that airships – commonly known as blimps – began to be built.
The Van Zeppelin was the first large airship built and could travel 600 miles in two days. Not only were these blimps inflated by hydrogen – a highly combustible gas – they were also the first commercial airliners.
On May 6, 1937 the German-built Hindenburg caught fire and burned in less than one minute, killing 35 of the 97 persons on board (one ground crew member was also killed, bringing the death toll to 36). Shortly after that disaster, airships gradually began to be phased out.
However, 1960, four men from South Dakota developed the modern hot air balloon and the propane gas burner which made sustained flight possible – and less dangerous.
“When I was 10, I read in a 'Popular Mechanics' magazine about the concept and that really got me started in ballooning.”
To give the craft flight, the burner – situated above the pilot’s head – shoots a flame into the balloon which heats the air. Once the air in the balloon hits a certain temperature the aircraft goes up. Anything below that temperature and the balloon begins to descend. However, outdoor temperature makes a difference in how hot the air has to be to lift the craft. It takes more fuel to heat the air for lift during the summer than it does during the winter.
The outdoor temperature isn’t the only variable that affects ballooning, pilots are also at the mercy of Mother Nature with respect to the direction of flight.
“You just don’t really know where it’s going to go. Different wind directions are at different levels in the air so I really never know exactly where I’m going to go or where I’m going to land. You kind of steer by going up and down, changing directions with the wind. It’s not an exact science, but it’s how you do it.”
Quigley has flown in a number of states throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France. He has also flown in ballooning competitions.
Piloting a balloon however, requires more than just the desire to fly, one also needs a pilot’s license to operate the craft.
“There are different classes of aircraft and ballooning is just one of the classifications so it requires a different license. And if you are going to sell rides, you have to have a commercial license to do so.”
Obtaining a LTA (lighter-than-air) pilot’s license requires training by a professional instructor and testing. The average time it takes to get a LTA license is approximately one year.
However, Quigley didn’t set out ballooning to start a business – he had been a real estate agent for 21 years in the Rochester area – but he walked away from his job on land to begin his venture in the air.
When he started his business in ’93, his aircraft only held three occupants, today, his crafts can hold between eight and nine. The bigger the balloon, the more people that can be taken in the craft, however, there is a weight limit because of the size of the balloons. So for safety reasons, Quigley needs to know the weight of each passenger.
Additionally, he only offers evening rides – typically about two hours before sunset – and passengers are in the air for about 45 minutes to an hour, with the entire experience lasting approximately two-and-one-half to three hours, which includes inflation and deflation of the balloon.
The morning flights would get fogged in and the winds in the gorge, called drainage winds, act almost like a wind tunnel. In the evening when it’s warmer, the air rises and there is no drainage because the warm air is going up.
“The morning is the coldest time of day, so the colder air falls down, and because Rochester is at a lower sea level it makes a wind tunnel. However, there is no wind when you’re in a balloon. You can light a candle and the flame wouldn’t flicker. If you’re flying level, there is no wind chill. Cold nights are the best time to fly. It’s cold, but rewarding. Because you can’t steer a balloon, we only fly when it’s calm or there are light winds.”
Balloons Over Letchworth launches from the upper/middle falls picnic area of the park. Rides are offered seven days a week beginning around mid-May through mid-October, but are entirely weather dependent. Additionally, all rides are scheduled excursions and passengers are notified one day prior to flight if it’s a go. The flight is half at tree level and half at about 4,000 feet – high enough to see both Buffalo and Rochester. The most difficult part about the journey is landing.
Even after more than 2,600 flights, Quigley still gets a thrill out of flying.
“Once that balloon starts filling up, my adrenaline starts running. I love it! It’s the excitement of the people. I get the biggest kick out of the excitement of the passengers and spectators and the people when we land. The adults become childlike around the balloons.”
Visit Balloons Over Letchworth for more information or to schedule a ride.