Near the top of everyone’s bucket list is the wish to take a ride in a hot air balloon. Hot air balloon rides can be costly but now you can experience a balloon thrill at a reasonable price in tethered balloon rides that are cropping up all over the country.
Aerophile, a French company, has installed their “tethered gas balloons” all over the world, including Las Vegas, Branson, San Diego, Orlando, Los Angeles, and Pigeon Forge (Gatlinburg).
The Aerophile installation in Pigeon Forge is called Wonders of Flight. The balloon is 100’ tall and rises to a height of 500’. In place of the normal wicker basket that holds 4 or 5 passengers, an Aerophile balloon has a donut shaped metal basket that can hold 30 passengers.
On the day I was there, the balloon installation was about 3 weeks old and they were limiting flights to 6 passengers. I felt like I was beta testing a hot air balloon – if this works, we’ll put 30 passengers in it. We were asked to disperse the weight more or less evenly around the donut basket and not to move around or shake the basket.
The basket is surrounded by netting to discourage jumpers, I suppose, and make photography with a large lens hood difficult. Although the balloon is tethered, there is a pilot to control the ascent and descent, keep passenger under control, and warn of a couple of bumps that are part of the ride.
The view, even at 500’, is very nice but I won’t check hot air balloon off my bucket list until I do the real thing. I’ve been told one of the surprises for first time balloon riders is that there is little or no wind; the wind doesn’t pass by you but pushes you along. In a tethered balloon, you do feel the wind and, even on a relatively calm day, the balloon is bounced around a bit.
Ground control has a computer screen that displays weather information for riders and another for the people who decide when it isn’t safe to fly. I asked the pilot what the no fly parameters were – wind speed, gusts, lightning potential, etc. – and got an evasive answer that either meant he didn’t know or didn’t want to talk about it.
There are a lot of tie down cables but I imagine strong winds might require that the balloon be deflated.
The tethering cable is very thick and goes through the donut hole in the basket. It looks like there is redundancy in a lot of cabling but there is only one tethering cable and one tethering cable connection and anything can break. I wanted to ask the pilot what the emergency plan was in case the cable broke but I didn’t think he’d want to talk about that possibility. I guess, if the cable broke, we’d be in Winston-Salem in about a week.
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