Sky’s the limit

By on April 18, 2018
A pair of hot air balloons floating across the Lancaster County skyline.

A pair of hot air balloons floating across the Lancaster County skyline.

Shortly after sunrise or nearing sunset, it’s easy to glimpse hot air balloons rising above Lancaster County farmland. It is a beautiful sight from the ground and breathtaking for flyers in the balloon basket above.

Ballooning has been a staple of county tourist visits for decades and today two local companies are managed by long-time balloonists — Stan Hess and Nick Moehlmann — who have decades of flying under their belt.

The United States Hot Air Balloon Team and the Susquehanna Valley Balloon Company have taken locals and tourists high above Amish farmland for a magnificent view of the countryside for decades. At 2,500 feet, floating silently on a light breeze with the only noise an occasional burst from the propane burner, it is flying, many say, the way it was meant to be.

Moehlmann says that he and Hess are the last two companies flying in Lancaster County with the closest competition in York and Dauphin Counties.

Locally, entrepreneurs Hess (United States Hot Air Balloon Team) and Moehlmann (Susquehanna Valley Balloon Company) are the go-to companies for ballooning. The men were exposed to hot air balloons as passengers in the 1970s and 1980s and were immediately hooked. Both knew they would take their love of flying to the next level: being licensed, owning a balloon and eventually opening businesses. Their companies have taken thousands of passengers on their first lighter-than-air balloon experience.

Hess, whose family was one of the area’s largest chicken farmers supplying eggs to the wholesale and retail markets, grew up in Ephrata.

He started the USHABT in 1985. His balloons — many with corporate logos — have been part of marketing campaigns across the United States. He also has arranged high-end European vacations that include multiple balloon assents in Switzerland and France. He flies locally from the Bird-In-Hand “Run, Ride and Soar” site as well as the open fields behind farms and retirement communities. His balloons also operate out of Hershey and Gettysburg.

Ballooning has a long area history. The first U.S. balloon flight in 1793, out of Philadelphia and witnessed by President George Washington saw Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard lift off for a 45-minute flight across the Delaware River to New Jersey. John Wise, a Lancaster native, was a pioneer in the early 1800s building and flying his own hydrogen-filled balloons. During his lifetime, he made 463 flights and died in 1879, at age 71, on a balloon flight above Lake Michigan. A monument in Lancaster’s Musser Park recognizes his accomplishments.

Manned balloon flights date to the 1700s in France and have a long history in the growth of aviation as well as in military engagements from the French Revolution through the U.S. Civil War and World War 1.

Today, these gas-filled balloons are called dirigibles or blimps and are used by the military or commercially. The Goodyear fleet of blimps have been flying since 1925 and are used for advertising as well as a platform to broadcast sporting events.

Lebzelter Tire, (now Jack Williams Tire and Auto in Lancaster) was the country’s oldest Goodyear dealer and for years Goodyear sent its blimp to Lancaster to promote its loyal dealer and to provide rides for its customers. (I was on one of those flights in 1975 while working at Franklin and Marshall College and took aerial photos of the campus long before the advent of remote camera drones).

Moehlmann, a former Pennsylvania State Representative from Lebanon made his first assent with pilot, friend and fellow legislator (the late) Marvin Miller in 1984. In 1991, Moehlmann and Miller started the hobby business with Dian and Earnie Dingle who signed on as partners and pilots.

Both Hess (in his sixties) and Moehlmann (in his seventies) are still licensed and flying but also employ experienced, commercial pilots — some family members — that they have trained for the bulk of their flights.

Hot air ballooning became a business primarily through technology with the development of efficient propane burners to heat the air in the balloon and tough, quality balloon fabric made by companies including Cameron, Lindstrand, Head, and Firefly. One of the largest, the Cameron Balloon Company in Ann Arbor, Mich., has manufactured more than 8,000 traditional and custom shaped balloons in the past 40-plus years.

Hess has been transitioning much of the USHABT management responsibility to his grandson Jake Frame. Frame took his first balloon ride at age three and helped his grandfather ever since, getting his student license at age 14 and commercial license at 18. Although handling a lot of the office work, Frame made 115 flights during the last season.

“I am committed to building the company from what my grandfather started,” said Frame. “(I) look to expand in a number of areas in the years ahead.”

Hess’s nephew, Lucas Hess, also took his first flight as a youngster and has helped out in the business since age five. Now 36, and one of the company’s chief pilots, Lucas became a commercial pilot at age 21 and has logged more than 3,400 flights in the United States and Europe. “It never gets old,” he said. “We have a perfect environment in Lancaster County to fly and I have taken off and landed in so many places, I don’t need a map.”

The US Hot Air Balloon Team — with 12 balloons — accommodates from two to 10 people in shared-ride flights. The Susquehanna Valley Balloon Company has four balloons and flies from the Lancaster Airport facility with a control tower that provide weather, air traffic information and wind updates. SVBC can take up to four passengers for its balloon excursions.

Moehlmann, a Lebanon County native, also owns Lancaster Balloonport with headquarters at the airport which is a FAA certified balloon repair facility that handles annual inspections and repairs for more than a dozen balloons each year.

Both company’s flights spend about an hour airborne and the passenger baskets have been the sight of numerous wedding proposals or special celebrations.

“We usually have one flight per balloon per day,” Moehlmann said. “But (we) can lift off twice a day if needed.” USHABT’s 12 balloons may make multiple flights each day during the season.

The balloon season re-starts in April although both companies occasionally take passengers up during the winter. For information on each company, visit their websites: ushotairballoon.com and svballoonco.com.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net.

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