29 Oct Soaring through the 501
by Linda Henderson
I have a confession: A hot air balloon ride was never on my bucket list. That all changed when I attended the first Petit Jean Hot Air Balloon Event. My plans were to photograph the balloons as they took off and then chase them as they soared across the River Valley. I hoped to photograph them as they slowly descended to earth somewhere east of Petit Jean. But, after catching sight of the colorful balloons taking off, I then had the desire to see the steep cliffs and rocky outcropping of the mountain’s edge from a bird’s-eye perspective. For the first time, I wanted to fly over the lush green forest of Petit Jean Mountain. I yearned to see the River Valley from high above the low-slung clouds. I was so blessed to have my desire fulfilled when I got the opportunity aboard a hot air balloon piloted by Rodney Williams of Branson Balloon.
The Petit Jean Balloon Event was held at the airport on the mountain and was sponsored by the Petit Jean Farmer’s Market. Many of the residents of the Petit Jean community also were involved in planning, sponsoring and serving as crew members for the event.
The ride on board the balloon was exciting and fun with delightful sensations. The initial upward movement was smooth, as if taking a step up a ladder. The first sensation was the air rushing over my face and my hair blowing back. Next, I was aware of the heat and sounds of the burner as the balloon moved skyward. The most awe-inspiring and unexpected part of the ride was that we floated almost silently above the earth except for the occasional burst of fire from the burner. The appearance of the crowd and airport below became wider as we climbed toward the sky. As we flew off the mountain, we soared at about 1,100 feet above ground level. Houses on the mountain looked small and farmlands beneath looked vast.
The view of the countryside opened up, and I saw the entire top of the mountain and park that I have loved since my first visit to Petit Jean State Park when I was 7 years old. The landscapes and panoramic vistas of the valley below were breathtaking. The sun was just high enough at that early hour to illuminate the lowlands of the Arkansas River. The contours and turns of the river around the mountain became visible. The river sparkled and glimmered as the sun shone down upon it. There were just enough clouds to give perspective to the vastness of the skies and set off the multicolored balloons. I had to remind myself to enjoy the spectacular view and not just take photos.
As we flew, our pilot explained flights are dependent on the weather and the direction of the wind. If storms or high winds are predicted, then flights must be canceled. The direction and the amount of the wind determines where the balloon will fly. The wind speed also determines the speed of the balloon and how long it stays in the air.
Our landing was perfect. We landed right on a rural Conway County road with the tiniest bump. The ground crew, including my husband, Jim, arrived quickly. The crew packed the balloon and basket into its cargo trailer with military precision and the speed of a race-car crew changing a tire.
When the balloon was packed, a long-lived tradition of toasting the ride and reciting “The Balloonist’s Prayer” was conducted by the pilot, riders and crew. The prayer is commonly recited after the flight is concluded, thanking the Lord for a safe and memorable ride. The author, origin and exact text of “The Balloonist’s Prayer” are uncertain.
“The Balloonist’s Prayer:”
May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that
God joins you in laughter
And sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
The ride was perfect and I could not have asked for a better pilot and crew. I have enjoyed getting to know pilot Rodney Williams and his head crew member, his wife, Melissa Williams. If you have a desire to ride in a hot air balloon, I highly recommend them. So, is a ride in a hot air balloon on your bucket list? If so, I have great news. Another hot air balloon event is planned for Petit Jean Mountain. The event will take place Oct. 30, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. The cost is $275 per person. A $75 deposit is required to reserve a ride. Spots can be reserved by contacting petitjeanballoonevents.com or by calling Branson Balloon at 417.336.6060. Other opportunities for balloon rides on Petit Jean Mountain are also being planned. Sponsors are looking for this to become an annual event, and hope to fill the sky with hot air balloons April 8, 2024, during the next total solar eclipse.
I have another confession. I now want to see Petit Jean’s glorious autumn colors while floating peacefully high above the mountain. I want to have a 360-degree view of the winding Arkansas River and the farm fields at harvest time below. See you there?