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They popped the question from a balloon 2,500 feet in the air

Hot-air balloon proposals are taking off for couples who have no fear of heights (or commitment)

(Washington Post Illustration)
6 min

A year and a half after meeting Tara Hoverstad over a Zoom call for a church group, Bradley Rose dropped to one knee and asked her to marry him. Inside the basket of a hot-air balloon soaring above the snow-kissed hills of Asheville, N.C., she said yes. For the happy couple, it was a milestone. For their pilot, it was an increasingly average day.

“I got two calls for proposals yesterday, and that’s not unusual,” says Phyllis Barnard, who manages customer relations at Asheville Balloon Company and spent months coordinating Rose’s private flight. “We’re getting a lot more than ever.”

Maybe it’s the pandemic inspiring us to carpe diem, or the safety protocols encouraging us to seek outdoor activities, or the influence of social media. Balloonists have their own theories for why these engagements are on the rise.

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Whatever the case, “it’s definitely becoming more popular, especially in the last couple of years,” says Damien Mahony, who owns Black Hills Balloons in South Dakota with his wife, Keely.

Eliav Cohen, chief pilot of Seattle Ballooning, says three to five people propose on his company’s flights each week. He had one flight in which three couples who didn’t know each other got engaged.

“First guy goes, ‘Hey, will you marry me?’ And the next guy goes, ‘Well, I guess I’ll do it too,’” Cohen says. “The third guy goes, ‘I guess I’ll do it too.’ Three totally random couples.”

Hot-air balloon pilots say most customers are from out of town and on vacation. Most of them are also very nervous. The anxiety can be about proposing, having their trip go according to plan or just acrophobia.

“I’m deathly scared of heights,” says Nicolas Ganea, a chef in Everett, Wash., who proposed in 2017 on a private balloon ride in Seattle. “The game plan was just to get over it. … If I can face this fear, we can do anything together as wife and husband.”

The gesture worked. His then-girlfriend, Erin, is now his wife.

Not everyone can afford a private ride, which can cost anywhere from $400 to more than $3,000. Many pop the question during an open group flight. Being packed in a small basket with strangers 2,500 feet in the sky may not sound like an ideal situation for an engagement, but, Mahony says, it can make the moment more special.

“It’s pure joy,” he says. “There’s a round of applause. You’ll have some die-hard romantics tearing up, crying.”

Balloons Over Letchworth pilot Lee Teitsworth says group proposals bring “absolute delight” to every passenger.

“Everyone is so thrilled for the people [getting engaged]” says Teitsworth, who proposed to his wife after a balloon ride. “It really adds to the moment — everybody’s got a smile on their faces.”

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But group flights can also be a wild card.

Mahony once had a customer who requested that the company lay out a banner that read “Will you marry me?” to surprise his girlfriend. After the flight began, Mahony told the group to look down at the sign. Then he noticed the problem: There was no name on the banner.

“There were a lot of girls in the basket wondering, ‘Is this for me?’” Mahony says. “You could tell there was a lot of disappointment.”

Not every proposer tells the pilot or balloon company about their plans in advance. Cohen recommends letting the pilot know because the person can nudge you when it’s the perfect time. There are moments you want to avoid — like when the pilot has to crank the burner, making a loud noise that would interrupt a proposal speech.

If you’re planning to propose in a balloon, nerves may take over, and you may end up waiting until the balloon has almost landed. Or, the moment may come to you naturally.

“I wasn’t sure exactly when to ask,” Rose says. “But when we pulled up higher above the clouds and the sun was gleaming on us, that’s when I pulled out the ring.”

Other proposers do give balloon companies a heads up. They may ask for special touches like setting up a picnic or placing flowers in the car that picks them up after their ride. Barnard has accepted photography requests to go “incognito,” pretending to take pictures for the company then capture the couples’ moment on camera. A regular request is arranging friends and family to show up before the couple lands.

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But because you can’t predict exactly where a balloon will land, those loved ones usually ride in a chase car that follows the flight through radio contact and tracking devices. Unlike other forms of aircraft, balloons do not have a sophisticated steering mechanism. Pilots use wind and weather patterns to control where they fly as best they can. Cohen says that these days, pilots can get to the same spot almost 80 percent of the time, no matter where they launch.

“That’s the hardest part,” he says of steering. “It is very much an art and a science.”

Balloonists aim for open fields, farms and spacious backyards for safe landing. While most people are excited to have a landing on their property, that was not the case in the 1780s, when the French invented hot air ballooning as we know it. The new technology terrified landowners who assumed the floating orbs were invaders or evil creatures. Some responded by attacking balloons with weapons.

To avoid such scenarios, early balloonists began gifting champagne to the people they encountered on landing. The precautionary measure became a lasting tradition.

“Today, every balloon in the entire world — whether it’s a private or commercial flight — brings champagne,” Cohen says. “And when we land, we share it with the landowner.”

Asheville Balloon Company gets champagne from Trader Joe’s. Balloons Over Letchworth uses sparkling grape juice. Seattle Ballooning goes through six or seven bottles of sparkling wine every day, be it champagne from small French producers or Spanish cava. For Cohen, it doesn’t matter where the bubbly is from as long as it’s good. His balloonist mentor once told him “You don’t ruin an amazing experience with bad champagne.”

The tradition pairs well with engagement rides. Once the happy couple returns to the earth, they can toast their momentous flight and celebrate with their ballooning group and any strangers they meet on the ground.

“We landed at this person’s house; they were super outgoing and all these kids came running up,” says Ganea, the Everett chef. “We poured out the champagne, and the neighbors next to us joined in as well — it was hilarious.”

Balloon operators say post-flight celebrations are the norm, but not everyone accepts a proposal. Cohen flew a couple who had only been on three dates when the man decided to propose. After the woman declined, “it was just awkward,” Cohen says. “She was on one side, he was over there. … There was no place to land for 45 minutes.”