Nine-million BTUs ablaze as Liberty Balloon Co. pilot Lee Teitsworth gasses two superheated coils like a vertical flamethrower above us, the balloon climbing an invisible lattice of air currents in the valley haze of Geneseo at sunrise. I watched my husband Ehren’s mother and our sleeping newborn daughter fall away with the patchwork farmlands below, Conesus Lake a glass of milk overturned on the green table of the horizon. Like a child letting go of a balloon string for the very first time, I started to wonder, “What have I done?”
My husband and I made a pact a few years ago to stop buying each other stuff. Instead, we impart an experience that will surely expand, and probably complicate, our understanding of the world around us. Kicking over each other’s bucket lists is the game. Who needs a TV? Not us.
It wasn’t much of a surprise: Ehren is enough of an aeronautics enthusiast to identify one of the few reasons for driving to the area’s ballooning hot spot at 5:30 a.m., not to mention picking up our friend, Hidha Sherwood, along the way. Without hesitation, Ehren volunteered as part of the crew upon arrival and prepped for launch, moonstruck by the opportunity to employ years of research as an armchair pilot.
Vertigo from liftoff dissolves with altitude, the mind reconciling in real time 360 degrees of perspective, unfamiliar in comparison to the binary views of flight on an airplane.
“Somewhere up here you’re going to see the Abbey of the Genesee. If you’ve ever had Monk’s Bread, you know them …” Teitsworth says. He points to the Mount Morris Dam and Letchworth State Park. “Come for a flight there and we’ll drop you right in next to the falls.” Wearing leather gloves to shield his skin from the heat, he leaves a hand on the propane jet controls. The other grasps a white, chain-knotted rope dangling from inside the sunlit envelope of the balloon carrying our four-person wicker basket as high as 5,000 feet above Earth. “The vent lines let a little hot air out when we need to descend,” he says, eyes keen on the silver titan of a cell tower ahead.
The balloon acts like a sail, a drift only anticipated by Teitsworth’s occasional appraisal: he spits over the basket’s edge, watching the saliva bow in the breeze. “Scientific method,” he calls it. Cold air seduces the balloon to sink, almost unperceivably so, and the roaring flame counters for what feels like minutes, vaulting us high above the cell tower. Teitsworth is in constant parley with the properties of matter and energy, his aircraft a phenomenological extension of himself. How does he know when to gas the burner? “How do you know when to start braking in a car? How do you know how much to accelerate?” Conversation is inaudible and impossible when the jets flare, communication taking on a rhythm dictated by motion of the gloved hand.
Teitsworth is a second-generation balloon pilot. His first flight was at six months old with his mother, Miriam, and veteran Navy pilot father, Carroll, president of Liberty Balloon Co. The first time Lee piloted a balloon, he was 11. “My dad had to put a sandbag down for me to stand on so I could reach the burners.” In New York State, a solo ballooning pilot’s license can be achieved at 14, 16 for a private license, and 18 for commercial flight. Growing up the youngest of four in a family business that also provides ballooning instruction, Lee Teitsworth has something like 650 hours of logged flight experience (dwarfed by his father’s 3400). Sometimes, he says, he thinks in terms of aerial directions while driving his car. “I never want to use GPS. That’s so cheating,” he says.
As we sip coffee from our thermos, chatting, the balloon meanders a couple miles from the launch site. The chase crew loiters on country roads below. Teitsworth vents enough hot air for the wicker basket’s leather trimmed underbelly to skim along rolling fields of green wheat. He leapfrogs tree lines, giving us the opportunity to take a leaf from the top of the forest. We play touch-and-go in a Christmas tree farm and sail over houses yelling, “Hellooo!” to people gardening or looking out bedroom windows.
Sensing an appropriately cold air current, Teitsworth phones down to the chase crew and predicts that we could land in the front yard of a hilltop home. A little over an hour has passed in the air. He gives rough directions to the chasers, using visible landmarks and crossroads, and we drop into sight as they arrive.
We descend with the elegance of dandelion cotton and hover over the yard of Teitsworth’s target until the chase crew moors the balloon and we touch down. The landowner is treated to a bottle of Finger Lakes sparkling grape juice (a considerate, non-alcoholic alternative to the traditional offering of champagne). Hot air is bled out from the envelope and the vessel goes slack.
Deflated, the balloon is stuffed into a washing machine-sized canvas bag, dragged by all to the driveway, and hurled into Liberty Balloon Co.’s pickup truck along with the basket. Standing around the truck’s gate on the gravel driveway, we toast with plastic cups to a safe landing, good stories, and discuss how free ballooning continues to capture a spirit of curiosity in people around the world. Landing is a serendipitous occasion so momentous, so alluring to bystanders, the impulse to chase is enchanting enough to eclipse their task at hand, even “trespass” on private property. “Growing up, sometimes we would hear a gas jet when we were sitting down to dinner,” Ehren remembers. “My mother and father, if they saw a hot air balloon crest the field out back, they would pack all four kids right up—dinner left steaming on the table more than once.” “What’s really awesome,” says Teitsworth, “is sometimes the mix of people. So, it might be an Amish guy and some biker dudes. They’re all patting each other on the back, tattoos and hats and all.”
Flying over the Finger Lakes, Teitsworth says it’s not uncommon for the Amish to chase on horseback and in carriages, kids riding bicycles for miles behind them. “One time … my passengers were like, ‘We have to land. We have to land!’ We were only at 40 minutes of flight, but I said OK. We found this iffy spot in a field, and we had to walk the balloon all the way out from … I don’t know, it might have been a thousand feet? The whole group of [Amish] folks came out. It was like their entire community helped us get the basket, and they went right by their pile of bikes and horses with buggies, and marched us right up to the road.”
Free ballooning is unique in that there is no predicting a landing site. There is no wheel, no rudder, no directional apparatus at all. Only up or down, flame and vent; a search for favorable winds, breath of the gods. We could fly every day for the rest of our lives and never have the same experience.