Morgantown’s remarkable views and unique landscapes dazzle balloonists

When one imagines standing in a wooden basket 1,000 feet off the ground, tranquility, wonder and joy are likely not the feelings that come to mind. That’s exactly what a hot air balloon provides, though, and that’s precisely how it feels to ride in one.

University Toyota’s Balloons Over Morgantown main event began Friday morning with the first balloon launch of the weekend, bringing together spectators to marvel at the sight.

The morning started with a crowd of excited pilots, riders and crew eagerly waiting near the airport runway, snacking on breakfast pastries and clutching warm coffee in cold hands. The group was lively with chatter, both from nervous first-time riders and experienced pilots eager to take to the skies.

This is where I was introduced to Stew Gibboney, pilot of the golden SnapDazzle balloon. With 23 years of piloting experience and over 1,600 flights under his belt, Gibboney proclaims Morgantown as his very favorite location to fly over. Considering most balloon flights occur in large cities, the rolling mountains and lush landscapes of West Virginia pose a unique, and sometimes challenging, piloting experience, as well as giving a stunning view that simply can’t be captured by a camera, making it popular among pilots.

Setting up SnapDazzle was a group effort, first inflating the balloon with cool air, then lighting the burners to finish expanding the balloon and lift it upright. All along the runway, the other balloons followed the same process, and a crowd of onlookers began to assemble along the roadside fence.

At 8 a.m., Van Anderson’s Fun One II took to the sky. As the balloon meister, Anderson is the one to kick off the launch. Seconds later, SnapDazzle followed close behind. The feeling was far gentler than one might expect — one second, the basket was on the ground, and the next, we were smoothly floating upwards as though weightless, the ground creeping ever further away. After all, hot air balloon passengers don’t even experience wind within the basket, and certainly don’t experience turbulence.

The sky quickly filled with a rainbow of balloons, each one left to the whims of the wind, each one with an entirely unique experience and view. Strong winds or low visibility can put the event at risk of cancellation, but Friday morning was one of clear skies, easy winds and a layer of fog that did nothing except contribute to the peaceful ambiance.

Balloons Over Morgantown’s first launch Friday morning. (The Dominion Post / Kaitlyn Eichelberger)

Following the wind brought SnapDazzle over roads, woodlands and buildings, with crowds of spectators below pausing to gaze up at the procession of colorful hot air balloons making their way overhead. Students from local schools met us with cheers of awe and ecstatic hand-waving as the balloons floated past, and the adults of Morgantown were no less excited — work was briefly put on hold throughout the city as people stepped out onto sidewalks to admire the aircrafts above.

As we crossed over the Monongahela River and the trees along the riverbank, it became clear that even thousands of feet in the sky, you simply can’t escape the wonderful wilderness of West Virginia. The quiet air was filled with the chirping of birds, the murmur of fall leaves and even the rustling of a doe and her fawns making their way across railroad tracks — a truly picturesque scene. The wind pushed us from the trees and toward the river, where we watched other balloons begin an exciting maneuver that SnapDazzle soon followed: a splash and dash, in which the aircraft descends towards water, the basket makes contact with the water’s surface, and then quickly ascends back into the air. Although this trick isn’t always successful — an overzealous descent might result in a dip rather than a splash — our shoes thankfully stayed dry.

After about an hour, with a maximum altitude of 2,204 feet and a maximum speed of 12.7 mph, the final descent began. As we touched down along the Mon River Rail-Trail, the balloon was quickly joined by a crowd of spectators excited to help pack the aircraft away and 275 pounds and 105,000 cubic feet of hot air balloon were tidily packed into a bag, a feat made possible by the group of children who were delighted to provide helping hands.

A group of spectators came together to assist in packing up the SnapDazzle hot air balloon after landing. A group of children sit on the bag to compress the rest of the air out of the balloon. (The Dominion Post / Kaitlyn Eichelberger)

The Balloonist’s Prayer and champagne toast brought the launch to a close, honoring a centuries-old tradition to celebrate a successful flight. As has been recited by generations of balloonists and concluded decades of Balloons Over Morgantown flights,

“The winds have welcomed you with softness.
The sun has blessed you with its warm hands.
We have flown so high and so well that God
has joined you in laughter and set you gently
back into the loving arms of mother Earth.”

For more information on Balloons Over Morgantown’s flights this weekend, visit Facebook.com/BalloonsOverMorgantown.