The Sky’s The Limit For Ballooning In State College
Weather permitting, Kevin Witt is up before the sun preparing to float over Centre County in a basket.
He’s been getting up early for 24 years to put together his 200 year-old contraption. While a lot of the materials and techniques have changed, the basic premise behind hot air ballooning is the same today as it was in 1783 — fill a giant balloon with hot air and hold on for the ride. The first hot air balloon with passengers occurred in France in 1783, although the passengers weren’t human. To investigate if the air above them was safe to breathe, Pilatre De Rozier sent a sheep, duck, and rooster up in his basket, Witt said. Obviously it was safe enough as it’s now Witts full-time job and enjoyed by people all over the world.
Witt, a Penn State graduate, owns The Sky’s The Limit Ballooning. The group drives from Witt’s home to a designated area like a farm to launch. After the crew sets everything up, the passengers and Witt climb aboard and take off.
His degree in Geo-Environmental Engineering comes in handy thousands of feet in the air, as most of piloting a balloon is understanding the wind. Witt flies in the mornings and at night because during the middle of the day, as the air warms up, columns of hot air rise and can send the balloon soaring higher than anticipated. They’re nothing to worry about, though, as Witt explained a hot air balloon is essentially a giant parachute and if worst comes to worst, it slowly descends and cools off until it lands. Another way the wind impacts ballooning is positive — no two balloon rides are the same because the wind never blows in exactly the same pattern twice.
“Theres a very big mix of people who live here and who travel here. I’m one of the few [hot air balloons] in the area so I’m getting people from New York, Pittsburgh and even Cleveland,” he said.
Two passengers in the balloon Wednesday were Scott and Amee Burnett of Huntingdon, high school sweethearts who’ve been married for eight years. Scott bought the ride as a Christmas gift for Amee but said he left his name off of the ticket in the hopes he might be able to avoid testing his aeronautical luck. “I was really apprehensive but it was so easy. I couldn’t have done it without my wife but I told her to have a back up just in case,” Scott joked.
“Ever since I was a little girl going in a hot air balloon has been on my bucket list,” Amee said. “It was an awesome gift and it was so easy. No hesitation, no jerking.”
Getting a license to pilot a balloon is similar to a driving license. Witt said there’s a written test, mandatory practice hours with an instructor, and a probationary period before a pilot can charge passengers for a ride. “Instead of parallel parking, it’s go up at a certain speed, go down at a certain speed, stay at a certain altitude kind of stuff.”
Rides peak between May and November and cost $200 a person. Average rides have three-to-four people in addition to Witt in the basket.