There is something spiritual about watching a hot air balloon mass ascension, hearing the steady whoosh of the fire licking up from the baskets as the balloons slowly, almost meditatively, lift off the ground, soaring higher, higher, higher, until they drift toward the horizon and become mere specks in the sky.
If you have never witnessed the magic of over 100 balloons rising simultaneously, mark your calendar for the 39th annual New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning, the largest summertime hot air balloon and music festival in North America, which will be held this year on July 29 to 31.
Set to the soundtrack of songs like “Up, Up And Away” by The 5th Dimension—“Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?”—the balloons begin making their ascent around 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. each day, weather-permitting, from Solberg Airport in Readington. From there, they meander the skies over the countryside until they touch down who-knows-where.
The photos are definitely Instagram-worthy—and even more so if you catch a ride in one of these beauties.
The festival is known for bringing in the newest and best “special shaped” balloons from around the world. Often whimsical and the size of New York City skyscrapers, they have run the gamut from a brilliant yellow sun to a 105-foot-tall sequined Elvis to an 86-foot-tall replica of Darth Vader’s head to a menagerie of animals and the world’s largest free-flying American flag.
A popular balloon is the dinosaur-themed “Jurassic Journey,” piloted by Tracy Leaver of Pittstown. Leaver has been involved in ballooning since the early 1980s, when she started out on a balloon chase crew—the group of people who help launch the balloon for flight and then chase it until it lands, well, wherever it lands.
“People often start out on the crew to learn and decide if they want to proceed in the sport or just stay as part of the crew, which is wonderful as well,” says Leaver, who became a private pilot and then a commercial pilot in 1998, but still enjoys working on fellow pilots’ crews. Since hot air ballooning is a Federal Aviation Administration–regulated sport, Leaver went through an extensive training for her commercial license, which included a minimum of 36 hours of flight time with an instructor, written tests and flight-check tests.
Leaver has participated at the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning for about 20 years, 15 of those as a pilot. “Balloon pilots love to share the sport with everyone they know. There’s something special about taking off in one of the oldest forms of flight and being able to give that experience to the people in the basket with you,” she says. “So, it’s amazing when we can all get together in a large group, like at a festival.”
What Leaver loves most about the sport is the pure adventure of piloting a balloon. “Every flight is different—even if you’ve been flying for 25 years. You can have an anticipation of what a flight will be like and then have it end up completely different than your expectation,” she says. “We may think we’re going to land in one spot, but since we can’t steer the balloon, we may end up going in a completely different direction.”
The pilots pay careful attention to the weather. Even on clear, calm-looking days, a wind shear hundreds of feet up might make flying prohibitive. “Safety always comes first,” says Leaver, who monitors a number of sources that help her determine if a day is flyable.
Rising into the sky is pure magic, no matter how many times you’ve gone up. “I had the most wonderful flight last year at a festival in Pennsylvania,” she says. “I took up a mom, dad and two kids. We were flying toward a large pond with a fountain in the middle. I thought it would be fun to come down low over it. The kids were delighted—and we adults felt like kids again. We could have stayed there all day, enjoying the mist on the pond and the beautiful sun shining on us. My chase crew was taking photos like crazy and giggling and we were laughing. It was a moment of pure joy.”
Besides meeting pilots like Leaver, festival-goers can enjoy live music, a nighttime hot air balloon glow, fireworks display, family entertainment and attractions, the Running with the Balloons 5K, children’s amusement rides, interactive exhibits and hundreds of vendors. Those who are curious but not quite ready to sail away in a balloon can take a ride in a hot air balloon that is securely tethered to the ground.
Beyond the Balloons
In addition to the balloons, the festival books an exciting roster of performing artists. This year’s lineup includes:
Laurie Berkner—recognized as the “queen of kids’ music” by People magazine—headlines the children’s concert on Friday. Berkner has released 14 best-selling albums, was the first recording artist to perform in music videos on Nick Jr. and has authored a number of picture books based on her songs.
Alternative rock heavy-hitter Collective Soul—whose breakthrough song “Shine” is ranked in the top 100 songs of the ’90s—plays on Friday and is followed by a world-class Fireworks Extravaganza.
Todd Rundgren, a 2021 inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, headlines the festival’s Main Stage on Saturday.
Classic rock legend Kansas—featuring Dunellen’s own Tom Brislin, who joined the band in 2019 as the group’s keyboardist and backing vocalist—closes out the festival on Sunday.
Throughout the festival, keep your eyes to the skies for David “The Bullet” Smith, who holds five Guinness World Records for the highest cannonball shot and the farthest cannonball shot. Smith has blasted over incredible obstacles, such as Ferris wheels, concert stages and even part of the Grand Canyon.
See the full schedule and buy tickets at balloonfestival.com.