The most suspenseful moments of our hot-air ballooning adventure came a few minutes before our scheduled liftoff.
In the eyes of our pilot, it was a bit too windy to fly. The winds had been diminishing, he said, but if they didn’t come down some more, we might have to scrap the flight. And the window of opportunity was closing rapidly. If our flight didn’t start in the next half-hour, there wouldn’t be enough time to complete it before dark.
My wife, Juli, and I had driven about 75 minutes from Leesburg to Woodstock, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, for our balloon experience — an anniversary gift from our adult children. Three times before, our flight had been postponed on the day of the event because of wind or rain. Two more wedding anniversaries had passed before we finally made it to Woodstock in October.
We met our pilot and the other 12 passengers in the Walmart parking lot at the appointed time. One couple would be celebrating their anniversary by flying in their own balloon; a larger balloon would carry the rest of us.
We piled into a large van and Don Warner Jr., our pilot and the owner of Valley Ballooning, drove us a few miles outside town to a churchyard. He checked weather reports by radio and launched a few small test balloons, watching intently as they rocked and swayed in the wind currents. For our flight to begin, the wind could be up to 10 mph at altitudes up to 200 feet, but at ground level should not be above 5 mph, including gusts, he said.
After a few minutes, we loaded back in the van to try another location. We stopped at what appeared to be an abandoned farm that had been converted to a soccer field.
Don and his crew again launched test balloons and listened to reports as the minutes ticked by. Our time in the air was supposed to be from 30 to 60 minutes, and sunset wasn’t far off. Don remarked that sometimes he couldn’t make the call until the very last minute.
The balloon had to be ready if the conditions were deemed safe, so Don asked for a couple of volunteers to help him inflate it. Another man and I went to the base of the balloon, each taking a side and holding the skirt open while two large fans filled the fabric with 250,000 cubic feet of air.
The balloon lay on the ground, the passenger basket on its side, until Don blasted jets of flame into the balloon to heat the air inside. Gradually, it began to rise. Don and his crew tipped the basket so that it was resting flat on the ground. “Get in quickly!” he told the passengers. The flight was a go.
The basket was divided into four sections for passengers. The 12 of us packed in, three to a section. Don piloted from a space in the center.
A group of people from neighboring houses had come to see us off. As we waved back, we noticed that they were gradually becoming smaller and farther away. We were airborne, the liftoff so gentle that some of the passengers said they hadn’t even felt it.
We certainly felt the blasts of heat, however, from the gas jets as Don fired flames into the balloon’s interior. More than once, Juli crouched down, holding her ears, to shield herself from the heat and noise.
But the gorgeous views that soon presented themselves more than offset any temporary discomfort we felt. There was hardly a sensation of motion as we made our ascent. Far below, we could see the neighbors still waving.
Soon the glorious Shenandoah Valley was in full view, a 360-degree vista impeded only by the passengers on the other side of the balloon. On either side of the valley were tree-covered mountains, fall colors just beginning to show.
As we climbed, we saw a patchwork of lush farms bounded by roads and trees. Sometimes we looked directly down on someone’s house and yard. In the distance, we could see the town of Woodstock and its distinctive water tower. To the east twisted seven bends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Bisecting the scene, north and south, was Interstate 81.
It was an amateur photographer’s dream. One spectacular scene followed by another made bad photos almost impossible. I occasionally had to remind myself to put down my camera and drink in the experience.
The other balloon was visible during most of our time in the air, providing context for our flight and photos. One passenger observed, with a note of alarm, that the other balloon seems to be descending quickly. Don assured her that this was because we were rising. He explained that the pilots could control only whether the balloon went up or down. As for the compass direction, that was up to the wind.
After we had soared for a while at an altitude of 1,500 feet, the sun began to disappear behind a mountain, signaling that our flight would soon be ending. There was no sense of falling, akin to that in an elevator. Instead, we noticed that the miniature farms and matchbox cars were gradually returning to full size.
As we were about to reach tree level, Don used his radio to plan our landing with his “chase crew,” which had been tracking our flight on the ground.
“I think we’ll aim for the north end of this field,” he said. Then, a few seconds later: “Make that the south end.”
“This field belongs to one of my uncles,” he told us. “Fortunately, it’s one I get along with.”
Following Don’s instructions, we each grabbed a rope handle and flexed our knees as we landed with a soft bump. After about 40 minutes, our flight was over. One of the crew members was waiting for us with the van and a trailer for the balloon.
After the balloon deflated, Don’s crew and passenger volunteers helped roll it up and pack it into its trailer. Soon we were bumping across the field in the dark as Don looked for a road out.
“I think it’s this way,” he said. But a fence suddenly loomed in front of us.
“Looks like we hit a dead end,” he remarked. A few passengers groaned, but I was wise to his deadpan sense of humor. Sure enough, a hidden road branched off, just before the fence, as Don had known full well.
A few minutes later, we stood in a circle, back at the Walmart parking lot, as cups were distributed and filled with sparkling cider. A post-flight toast is a tradition dating back to the first hot-air balloon flight in France, Don explained. Someone quipped that they probably drank something a little stronger in France.
Nevertheless, we were happy to raise our cups as Don gave a toast that included words of thanks for a safe flight.
More from Travel:
The Inn at Narrow Passage
30 Chapman Landing Rd., Edinburg
Two miles south of Woodstock on Route 11, this restored colonial inn has a warm, friendly atmosphere and 12 private rooms, many with fireplaces. Rooms $155 to $175, includes full country breakfast for two.
Hockman Manor House
16388 Old Valley Pike, Edinburg
The 1868 manor house, a Virginia Historic Landmark, has views of the mountains and Shenandoah River. Guest rooms from $95 to $145, includes full family-style breakfast for two.
124 South Main St., Woodstock
The flagship of a chain of four Shenandoah Valley restaurants features steaks, seafood, pasta, sandwiches and salads. Salads from $13, sandwiches from $11 and entrees between $16-$28.
Woodstock Cafe and Shoppes
117 S. Main St.
The café is housed in the front of a store that sells gifts, crafts and regional wines. Open for breakfast and lunch, with extended hours and a dinner menu on Thursday evenings. Sandwiches, wraps and salads from $7. Dinner entrees (Thursdays only) start at $15.
Spring House Tavern
325 S. Main St.
Rustic tavern in the heart of downtown Woodstock is a local favorite, with several dining rooms and a diverse menu featuring steaks, seafood, pasta, burgers and salads. Salads and sandwiches from $8, entrees from $14.
Balloon flights through
Morning and evening flights above the Shenandoah Valley are offered seven days a week throughout the year, weather permitting. Various packages are available, with seasonal specials starting about $190 per person.
123 E. Court St.
Features craft beers brewed on-site. Limited food menu includes flatbread pizza (Monday-Thursday) and barbecue (Friday-Saturday).