Getting high in WNC

Helicopter view of city
photos by Melissa Smith

A deep breath and you’re off. After hours of anticipation, the anxiety that was festering in the pit of your stomach has subsided, giving way to a rush of excitement. You watch in silent awe as the world around you transforms itself as you drift higher and higher. Altitude! It’s an addiction for some, an occasional thrill for others, and an altogether transcendent experience for those who prefer more grounded adventures.

Western North Carolina is full of opportunities for those needing an increase in altitude. While conquering our tallest mountains can offer magnificent vistas, nothing compares with a bird’s-eye view of your surroundings — especially in fall, when the air is clear and the colors more vivid.

If you like getting high, or have the willingness to stretch your boundaries, here are four ways you can do it — and they’re all safe and legal!

Floating on air

Hot air balloon above Asheville

Hot-air ballooning, perhaps the most romantic mode of air travel, can be done within a short distance of downtown Asheville. Asheville Hot Air Balloons in Candler operates two flights per day, sunrise and sunset, seven days a week. The hourlong flights provide inspiring views of the surrounding mountains. Wind velocity and patterns dictate the flight path.

If a stunning view of Candler isn’t enough to entice you, rest assured that the sensation of floating on air is one you’ll never forget.

“The feeling of flying in a hot-air balloon is flightless,” says co-owner Rick Bowers. “Because the balloon is always moving with the wind, there is almost no wind chill.” Like a feather caught in a light breeze, a hot-air balloon rises at an average rate of 400 feet per minute and floats to altitudes ranging between 500 and 2,000 feet. A ground crew, appropriately called “chasers,” helps ensure a safe and effortless landing.

Asheville Hot Air Balloons is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The cost for a seat is $200 per person; a private flight costs $550 per couple and includes complimentary champagne. Discounts are offered to groups of six or more, and the company also does special events such as weddings and corporate parties.

Flying high

If you prefer high-speed air travel and higher altitudes, a sightseeing airplane flight may be the way to go. WNC Aviation operates from the Hendersonville Airport and provides scenic flights for up to three passengers in their Cessna 172 Skyhawk aircraft. A one-hour flight encompasses a 30-mile radius around the airport, taking in Biltmore Estate, Asheville, Mars Hill, Hickory Nut Gorge, Black Mountain and Chimney Rock. And at $175 per hour, this is cheapest way to get high. While advanced reservations are not required, a two-day notice is greatly appreciated.

Though more expensive, a helicopter flight provides more visibility, thanks to the craft’s larger windows and see-through doors. It’s more exciting, too: Hovering, swift ascents and descents, and 90-degree turns are enough to elicit a squeal or two.

Falcon AirLink, owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Angie and Bryan Neal, offers scenic helicopter flights from the Asheville Regional Airport. Two helicopters are available for tours. The larger Jet Ranger carries four passengers, while the smaller and faster Hughes 500 carries three. Popular tours incorporate the Chimney Rock area, downtown Asheville, Biltmore Forest, Pisgah National Forest, Looking Glass Rock, the waterfalls of Transylvania County, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Mount Mitchell. Falcon AirLink offers 30-minute tours for $495, one-hour tours for $810 (limit: four people), and flights tailored to your needs. Advance booking and a $100 deposit are required.

With almost 30 years of piloting experience, Bryan, with Angie’s help, continues to expand the business by buying more aircraft and offering clients more options. A “heli-paddling” adventure is a great hybrid trip for families. The daylong adventure ($395 per person) includes a three-hour canoe or kayak trip down the French Broad River followed by a gourmet lunch and a 40-minute scenic-waterfall tour by helicopter.

Both WNC Aviation and Falcon AirLink are Federal Aviation Administration approved and also operate flight schools for those seeking pilot certification.

The ultimate high

Riding inside an aircraft is thrilling, but jumping out of one is the ultimate rush. Consider jumping into thin air from 13,500 feet up. The rate at which you’ll fall, known as “terminal velocity,” is about 120 mph. You’ll plummet about 8,000 feet in less than 60 seconds! Once you pull your parachute at 5,500 feet, you’ll spend the next five minutes soaring gracefully into the drop zone for a welcome landing.

Sound insanely frightening? The reality is that skydiving isn’t as scary as one might think. Bungee jumping, for this writer at least, is a far more hair-raising, stomach-in-your-throat experience. The scariest aspect of skydiving is the act of leaving the aircraft. And since you’ll likely be jumping tandem (with an instructor), you’ll have no choice but to jump.

“Within five seconds of exiting the plane you’ll feel safe, because you are at terminal velocity … and because you are so high above the ground you have no sensation of the things around you rushing past,” claims James LaBarrie of Skydive Carolina. In other words, when you drop that fast and from such a height, it doesn’t really feel like falling.

Skydive Carolina, the nearest skydive center, is located in Chester, S.C., about a three-hour drive from Asheville. Twenty years of accredited business and a well-trained and certified staff have given Skydive Carolina a great reputation. The cost for a tandem skydive ranges from $179 to $199, with discounts on Sundays and for groups. Would-be skydivers must be at least 18 years old and weigh less than 225 pounds. Advanced booking is required, along with a $50 deposit. Skydive Carolina also offers an accelerated freefall instruction course for thrill seekers who want to learn to fly solo.

If you plan to get high

• Asheville Hot Air Balloons

• WNC Aviation

• Falcon AirLink

• Skydive Carolina
(800) 759-3483

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