What to get the person who has everything?
How about an experience?
It wastes no paper, it doesn’t add pounds and it creates memories that last a lifetime. And, the cooler weather is a perfect time to try something like this out. Indeed, for the perfect fresh perspective, a hot-air balloon ride might just be the ticket.
After taking his sister out for her birthday a few years back, Louis Vickers of Vickers Ballooning LLC said it was “love at first flight.” He said he always had an interest in aviation, but it was tough to make a living in the area doing it. But after that balloon ride for his sister, he thought it would be a cool side gig.
“I thought, ‘No one is really doing it. It would make a great business.’”
Originally, Vickers and his wife, Lori, thought the Dagsboro-based business would cater to the tourist and vacationer population in their specialty business, but Vickers said he has been pleasantly surprised by his predominant clientele.
“Over 90 percent of our clients have been local,” he said. “It’s just been something they have always wanted to do. For most people, it’s something that’s on their ‘bucket list.’”
Vickers found a flight instructor in West Chester, Pa., and then stayed in Phoenix, Ariz., for about two months, learning to fly. No matter what type of pilot training people get, he said, they first must take ground school, where they learn the basics of wind, weather and altitudes, and take a written test.
After doing that, he branched out into hot-air ballooning and got his experience flying the Wendy’s hamburger balloon over the city of Phoenix, advertising for Wendy’s while getting his flight his instruction.
“Our instructor said it would gives us confidence, flying over the middle of the city, saying it would be easy when we got home – not realizing we are surrounded by water, crops and the trees and power lines,” Vickers joked, adding that the city flying did boost the confidence of the students.
After completing all his training, Vickers got his commercial pilot’s license in January 2007, ordered his hot air balloon and received it in June of that year. He and his wife named it “Cloud 9” and have been in business ever since.
Vickers has kept his day job for now, so balloon rides are by appointment only, mainly on the weekends. He keeps a list of interested people and, depending on the weather, moves down the list, setting up flights.
Flights are always at the mercy of the wind, so they do several tests beforehand to test wind direction for safety. Each flight is followed by a ground crew that keeps in constant radio contact with the pilot, and – mostly because of the wind patterns of the area – flights start in the west and move eastward. But Vickers said he can take off and land anywhere he has prior permission.
Vickers said people are usually intimidated by the balloon rig at first but always loosen up.
“To see a nylon bag the size of a beanbag, and that’s your aircraft… then we start to put cold air in, and then, when it’s nice and filled with cold air, we get the burners going and it stands up.”
He said the final size of the propane-filled balloon is about 65 feet tall and 60 feet around.
“It’s huge. It excites and scares people. But, usually five minutes into the flight, they have forgotten about being nervous or anything and are taking in the beauty of being able to go up as high as we want.”
He added that most people’s greatest fear about flying in a balloon is power lines, but they are sure to take no chances, even encouraging the guests to point out any potential obstacles. But, with high visibility and help from the crew, and being able to control left and right motion by going up to different altitudes, they are always on top of any potential hazards.
“We can do from tree tops to a couple thousand feet,” said Vickers of the possibilities for his balloon passengers. “It’s a new perspective. As we are coming for an approach, [in an open area] we can sometimes talk to people on the ground because there is no noise other than the burners.”
“[The best part] is the serenity of it. People can’t believe there is no noise involved. And to come down low enough to be able to talk to people, it’s a fresh perspective. It’s truly beautiful and a wonderful thing.”
Vickers said the balloon rides, which last about an hour, are not recommended for small children because of their short attention spans. Also, because the basket is between belt and chest high on him – to make his guests feel as secure as possible – the younger children wouldn’t be able to see anyway. But for adults, he said it is the perfect birthday, anniversary or special-occasion gift.
Flights cost $175 per person and come with a continental champagne breakfast afterward. He added that they are always looking for volunteer crew members, if there are other people – like him –who want to get hands-on experience with ballooning or who just have an interest in it.
For more information, visit www.vickersballooning.com online or call (302) 462-1830.