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by Susan Mikula Campbell
Niagara County Community College will celebrate its 50th anniversary this weekend with plenty of balloons rising into the sky, as well as three days of activities and entertainment.
Although these balloons are as colorful as regular-sized party balloons, the smallest of NCCC's balloons is 60 feet tall, and most of the others range from 70 to 80 feet tall.
Balloons Over Niagara returns to the campus, July 27 to 29, repeating the excitement of 25 hot air balloons taking to the sky in 2008 to celebrate the county's bicentennial.
This time, about 50 hot air balloons from as far away as Michigan and Florida will be participating, according to Bob Fritton of Gasport. He and his wife, Jenny, are licensed balloonists and own the rainbow-colored Déjà Vu, at 60 feet tall, the smallest balloon participating in the event.
All of the balloons are colorful, but also look for some that are a bit different, such as the Sugar Bear from Michigan, shaped like the head of the famous cereal mascot, and from Georgia, the Eddie-Rickenbacker, featuring Snoopy and the Red Baron, honoring the World War I flying ace and the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Jenny is the balloonmeister for Balloons over Niagara. The balloonmeister conducts weather briefings for the pilots at a balloon festival and decides if it is safe to fly.
Things that can cancel a flight include fog, thunderstorms, rain (the protective coating on the nylon balloons starts to deteriorate when wet) and, of course, the wind.
"The general public has no idea of what calm winds are," Jenny stresses, noting that balloonists look for winds generally less than 10 mph on the surface.
Flights are up to about an hour long, traveling five to 10 miles from the campus launch site.
"We go with the wind. You can't steer a hot air balloon," Jenny pointed out, although the pilot does have some control by changing altitude.
Because of this, when it's time to put down, balloonists might alight in a cut hayfield or even someone's back yard. The balloonist's ground crew does try to find the landowner, and it's tradition that the pilot presents that landowner with a bottle of champagne as a thank-you gift.
Those balloonists with commercial pilot's licenses will be offering rides for $250 at NCCC. Also, if the winds are calm enough, tether rides (a short ride up and down in a balloon tethered to the ground) will be available at a much smaller cost.
"I don't know anybody who's made a lot of money (taking passengers). They do it because they love it and try to support their hobby," Jenny said.
Come to the balloon field and look for the tent bearing the sign "balloon rides." Anyone wanting an evening balloon ride should be there by 6 p.m. and for a morning ride, by 5:45 a.m. Balloons fly early or late, because after about 9 a.m. thermal winds start as the ground heats up, causing unstable wind currents.
Balloon flight times, which are weather dependent, are at 6 p.m. Friday; 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday; and 6 a.m. Sunday. The balloon glow (also depending on weather), when all the balloons on the ground turn on their burners, is 9 to 10 p.m. Friday.
Jenny, 42, has been flying balloons for 20 years.
"It's just a beautiful way to see the world ... very peaceful," she said.
"Balloons Over Niagara is a celebration of Niagara County Community College's 50 years of service to the community," said NCCC President James P. Klyczek. "We are excited to welcome thousands of individuals and families from all over Western New York to join in the fun this weekend. With 50 hot air balloons to celebrate our 50 years, this weekend will be nothing short of spectacular."
Activities vary each day. In addition to the balloon glow, Friday night will feature the Alumni 5K run, a chicken barbecue and a performance by 90 West.
Saturday's highlights include a scavenger hunt, demonstrations in horticulture and pastry decorating, a tribute to military personnel and a fireworks display at the end of the night. A classic car show will take place on Sunday. Dozens of artisans and crafters, as well as live entertainment and the LPCiminelli Kid's Corner, will be available all weekend.
Admission and parking are free. Enter the event by Route 31 or Route 429.
To view a full schedule of events, visit http://niagaracc.suny.edu/balloons/.
Balloons Over Niagara schedule:
Friday, July 27
Saturday, July 28
Sunday, July 29