As they move into their late 60s, Beth and Joe Hamilton are running a most unusual mom ‘n pop business.
While many sexagenarians are working on their golf swings or strolling the beach, the Hamiltons regularly unfurl a 80-by-60 feet balloon, fire up twin propane burners to fill it with 105,000 cubic feet of air, and lift passengers into the summer sky.
Bantering all the way.
Joe points out that his wife got her balloon pilot’s license before he did. A visitor asks, when was that?
“Ninety eight—” she begins.
Joe interrupts, “I thought you were going to say eighteen hundred-something.”
Oh, Joe. Go check the wind report, would you?
On the opening night of the 39th annual Quechee Balloon Festival, the report was good. The heavy gray clouds that enveloped the Valley Friday morning gave way in the afternoon to cotton candy puffs set against a deep blue sky.
After worrisome breezes delayed the 6 p.m. launch, the winds finally subsided around 7:15 and the Hamiltons and other pilots scrambled to inflate their balloons, invite riders into the baskets and lift off, Oz-like, toward the east.
“A bucket list item, to be sure,” Pamela Corr, of Suffield, CT, said as she, her father Bob Pond of Mashpee, MA, and her children, Katelyn, 20, and Ryan, 17, prepared to climb aboard.
It was the family’s first flight. Thirty-five years ago, Joe Hamilton bought his wife a ride for a birthday present. She insisted he come along. Their feet never really touched back down.
“It was magical,” said Beth. “You know what? It still is.”
At 100 feet or 3,000 feet, pilots and passengers enjoy a 360-degree view and the feeling of near-perfect stillness, Joe says. There’s just the wind, which carries them where it will.
“It’s so different,” says Beth, “because you can’t grab a steering wheel.”
Rides at the Quechee event run $245 a person, which might seem like a lot until you take into account the investment of treasure and time made by balloon pilots. A rig including basket, burners, balloon and other gear runs about $50,000, and that’s not counting the travel expenses, $6,000 training for an FAA license — and the flights cancelled due to strong winds or crummy weather.
For years, the couple have run a business called Balloon Fantasies of Rehoboth in Massachusetts. It didn’t provide a full living — Joe worked as a chief probation officer and Beth as a phys ed teacher for students with special needs.
But ballooning provided extra money to put their daughter Kelly through college (she’s a probation officer) and son Joe through flight school (he’s a pilot for American Airlines).
And their shared adventure leaves the Hamiltons with stories to tell. Like the cows that gather round to lick the basket after they land in a pasture. Or the guy who climbed aboard with Beth and then confessed mid-air he was afraid of flying.
“Now you tell me,” she thought at the time. Once she got him safely back to earth, “He got out of the basket, he kissed the ground and he said, ‘I’m never going to do that again.’ ”
For most riders, though, it’s just the opposite. If you want to give it a try, check out the Quechee festival Saturday and Sunday. Weather forecasters say there’s plenty of blue sky all weekend long.