Balloons Take Center Stage at Solberg's Annual Festival

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Credits: Curtis Leeds / Tap into Flemington-Raritan file photo
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READINGTON, NJ - Mother Nature put a damper on the 34th annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning Friday morning, although that didn’t stop the pilots and their teams from coming out in hope of the rain clearing.

The event is the largest summertime balloon and music festival in North America. It is expected draw about 175,000 spectators, and continues at Solberg Airport here through Sunday.

One of the most excited teams is that of the Bimbo Bear. A brand new balloon, this 600-pound, 110-feet tall bear will be unveiled for the first time ever here at the festival.

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Bob Bueller, a seasoned pilot, returns with his ReMax balloon to fly high. He began 30 years ago and has continued to enjoy his passion since. He’s travelled to five countries with the balloon, experiencing different cultures and landscapes, although he says his favorite part of his hobby is living vicariously through first-time passengers.

Although each pilot has balloons of a different shape, color and size, a common thread is the passion and commitment of each participant to the sport or hobby.

Festival executive producer Howard Freeman says he eagerly anticipates the 5K Cross-Road Challenge. “Jennifer (the Cannon Lady) is what makes it rated one of the top ten races in the country… because of how it’s started,” Freeman said.

Friday features the entertainment of Third Eye Blind at 8 p.m. The band is best known for their singles "Semi-Charmed Life" and "Jumper."

To ride in a balloon costs $225 for a morning flight and $250 for an evening flight. They’re available all three days, if weather permits.

Larry Konash, known as the Ballonmeister, has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. He is the sole communicator with the Federal Aviation Administration, makes weather calls and provides for the overall safety for the balloons, pilots and their teams. Because the balloons fly into the airspace of the planes, he must continually inform the FAA so that they can divert flights and avoid a collision. Each week he is at a different event, similar to the balloon pilots and teams. He’s been flying for 45 years and has been the owner of an airplane since he was 23.

When watching the balloons tonight here’s a few things to know: The envelope is the actual fabric part of the balloon. The burners are metal squares where the propane-fueled heat comes from and keeps the balloon aloft. The basket holds the balloon’s pilot and passengers.

It takes the team about 30 minutes to erect and break down a balloon.

Larry Konash explained the competition that balloons participate in called the Hare and Hound. During the flight of the balloons they’re competing for a cash prize.

“We send up a balloon with a scoring official, which will fly for about 15 to 20 minutes before landing and setting out a marker in the shape of a cross,” he said. That represents the target that the balloonists strive to hit.

Each pilot receives a marker with a number at the end that will identify where they landed. The closest spot wins.

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