If you’re tired of creeping along behind a line of Winnebagos on the Blue Ridge Parkway, why not shift your quest for an eyeful of fall colors to a higher level: Take a ride in a hot-air balloon.
Seven stories tall and as bright as Joseph’s multicolored coat, a hot-air balloon will take you skimming silently over the morning fog that fills the mountain valleys around Asheville.
“We take off with the wind and go where the wind blows. We never know where we’re going to go,” says Sky Tours co-owner Bill Norwood. Chase crews follow the balloons, which carry as many as eight passengers for a one-hour journey, twice each day. In autumn, Sky Tours offers the champagne tour of colors: Participants learn a bit of balloon history, skim the skies, then toast the adventure with champagne afterward.
“Sometimes, if we go over a colorful wooded area, we’ll go down and let riders pick a leaf or two,” says Norwood, who’s been piloting for at least two decades.
The first recorded, manned, hot-air balloon flight wasn’t quite so romantic, though: Back in 1783, papermakers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier designed a balloon that required pilots to frenziedly feed straw and sheep’s wool to an on-board fire. (And their first test pilots were farm animals — who, fortunately, didn’t get roasted.) The first human pilots — physicist Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis Francois d’Arlandes — managed to get the balloon off the ground for 25 minutes … but just barely. At one point in the flight, they nearly careened into the Rue de Sevres in Paris.
A few months later, J.A.C. Charles took ballooning to new heights, coaxing his hydrogen balloon into the air for more than two hours, climbing to 820 feet. And after dropping off his passenger (who must have been pretty hefty), Charles was able to take his balloon up to 9,000 feet.
Needless to say, today’s hot-air balloons don’t burn sheep’s wool and straw, relying instead on gas burners to glide above the clouds. Balloon veteran David Woods, co-owner of Mount Pisgah Balloons, says: “Morning flights are the best. That’s when the weather’s the calmest [and] prettiest you’ve ever seen. That’s when you’ve got fog down in the valleys and you can look down on ’em from above.
“Ballooning’s a whole lot of fun, and the only bad thing is, it’s addictive,” he continues. Nearly 20 years ago, he saw his first hot-air balloon and just had to have one — though he didn’t even know how to fly it, at the time. “My wife didn’t like that too much,” confesses Wood.
But he took lessons from Norwood and recalls that his wife remarked, “If I’m going to stay married, I better start flying, too.” Now she’s his partner in the business, taking passengers up and inspecting balloons around the country (and the world: She was inspecting a balloon in Bermuda when Mountain Xpress called). The couple have also flown in France, in an event in which 1,000 balloons took to the skies.
So what are you waiting for? The champagne’s chilling, the leaves are turning … and don’t let your weight keep your feet on the ground. Says Norwood reassuringly, “We’ve got big balloons.”
For more info about mountain balloon trips in Buncombe County, you can find brochures for both companies active locally at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce’s Visitor Center (151 Haywood St.; 258-6101). Or call:
• Sky Tours, Inc. (76 S. Bear Creek Road, Asheville) at 251-5379 or (800) 770-5379. Flights are $125 per person. Reservations are required.
• Mount Pisgah Balloons (1410 Pisgah Highway, Candler) at 667-9943. Flights are $110 per person. Reservations are required.