EAST BEND — On a lovely Sunday morning in Yadkin County, Captain Jack Ponticelli inflates a small helium balloon and releases it into the air. It may seem like an usual thing to do, but this simple task is the start of a grand adventure that Ponticelli is about to share with his passengers.
Just a short time after that small balloon’s release, used to determine wind direction, passengers will board a hot air balloon and float gracefully into the beautiful blue Carolina sky.
Ponticelli has been in the aviation field for more than 40 years and involved with hot air balloons for 35 years. He is the owner of Carolina Balloon Adventures based in East Bend. Ponticelli, who has been a commercially licensed pilot now for 25 years, has flown this magical mode of transportation in places all around the country. Hailing from New Jersey, Ponticelli and his wife Debbie now reside in East Bend where they continue to share this unique experience with customers from across the nation and beyond.
For many, riding in a hot air balloon is a bucket-list wish. That was the case on Sunday for Barbara Alles. Her friend Orville Wilkie, who was visiting from Canada, surprised her with the gift of a hot air balloon flight. The two said it was a wonderful experience.
“I thought it was awesome,” Alles said. “It’s so calm and peaceful and you feel so close to God.”
It’s not uncommon for Ponticelli to have on-board proposals and even marriages take place in flight on his balloon. He said with a laugh that he even had one passenger who took a balloon flight in celebration of her divorce. Whether celebrating a special occasion or just fulfilling a dream, a hot air balloon ride is an experience like no other.
The brightly colored balloons make for a beautiful sight and Ponticelli said people often comment on how lovely the balloons themselves are. Describing the experience though can be difficult as it is something so different from any other mode of travel.
High above the trees, fields and homes, with the mountains a misty blue line in the distance, punctuated by the familiar sight of Pilot Mountain, the whooshing sound of the gas flame fills the ear, followed by a silence that is like no other.
Calm and peaceful is the best way Ponticelli said he could describe it.
“It was an awesome flight and I was just really amazed at how gently it took off and landed,” said Wilkie. This was Wilkie’s second time taking a hot air balloon ride, but the first since he lost his sight several years ago. As Ponticelli alerted them that they would land soon, Wilkie asked Alles to let him know when the landing was about to happen so he could hold on tighter, but the landing had already occurred, just a gentle kissing of the ground as the basket touched down in a grassy field.
Alles said she sometimes suffers from motion sickness and was worried that might be a problem on the balloon, but the flight up and once in the air was as smooth as standing in one’s own living room.
Choosing days with impeccable weather conditions to ensure safe flights is key for Ponticelli. Passengers are instructed to call him the night before their scheduled flights for a weather check. Ponticelli will not go up if conditions are not perfectly suited to ensure a safe trip up and back down.
“I’d rather be on the ground than wishing I was, in the air,” he said. Customers sometimes may have to reschedule their trip multiple times. Ponticelli said he once had to cancel a customer’s trip nine times before finally finding a good weather day to fly. Though it can cause some frustration for his clients anxious to make their flight, he said it’s not worth the risk to put the balloon up in the air on a day where conditions could cause problems.
Carolina Balloon Adventures schedules flights year-round in the early morning and evening hours from four launch sites around Yadkin County. Custom launch locations for special events such as weddings also can be arranged. The company also offers tethered flights.
The entire adventure is an immersive one for the passengers who also serve as assistant ground crew members to get the balloon in the air and back down and packed away following the flight.
Upon returning, guests are treated to a light breakfast and mimosas at Ponticelli’s home in celebration of their successful flight.
For more information on Carolina Balloon Adventures or to schedule a flight, visit www.usaballoon.com or call 704-437-9673.
Kitsey Burns Harrison may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter and Instagram @RippleReporterK.