This post is the next in our series, Hidden Gems, where we visit places hidden in plain view, in and around Dallas, that we have explored this summer and in the past. You can access that series of posts here.
A couple of weeks ago, as I sat sipping coffee in my backyard, on a bright, sunny August morning, a colorful hot air balloon slowly sailed across the skies above. Its slow glide and grace caught my fancy, and I wondered what fun it would be to ride in one. We have attended the Plano Balloon Festival a couple of times, but never taken a ride, not even in a tethered balloon. The time seemed ripe to explore the opportunity. Later that day, I researched hot air balloon rides in the North Texas area and came across Air Adventures Aloft and Rohr Balloons. The latter seemed to be located in the North Texas area and had a lot of good reviews. The website was straightforward and user friendly. But, it did not have openings for a sunrise tour before the Labor Day weekend that I was looking for. So I called Brian Rohr, he answered immediately, and although he had space on a private flight, it was only for two people. After looking at several options, none of which suited my plans, Brian offered a sunset ride on a weekday evening. After ensuring that all four of us were available that evening, we tentatively scheduled the flight.
Brian offers sunrise and sunset tours, as well as private and shared flights. Due to COVID-19, shared flights have been restricted to ten passengers instead of the usual twelve. Balloon proposals, balloon weddings, and tethered balloon rides for special occasions round out some of the other offerings. Of course, as with most people, I would have preferred a sunrise tour, but given our time constraints, that wasn’t an option.
The day before the ride, we got an email from Brian detailing how to dress for the ride, where to meet, what to bring: the ride’s nitty-gritty. Since weather conditions determine the safety and success of the balloon ride, the pilot makes the final call closer to the ride time. The morning of our ride was cloudy with minimal sun and remained that way for the rest of the morning. Brian told me he would decide by noon if we would go. We were confident the ride wouldn’t happen. Around noon, Brian called to say that we should wait until later in the afternoon to make the final decision. Finally, he called around 330 pm to say the ride was on! I was still a bit skeptical. The clouds remained, the sun played hide and seek, and I didn’t want the ride to be a total wash-out. But I trusted Brian to know what he was doing, and we set out, all agog with excitement.
Balloon rides last about 3 to 3.5 hrs. The guests are picked up in a pre-determined location (ours was Market Street in Allen) from where the chase vehicle takes them to the launch site. There the balloons are tethered to the basket gondola, gradually inflated, stood upright, guests pile in, photos are taken, and the ride begins. The tour lasts about an hour, reaches about 3000 feet in height, and involves some fun attempts like trying to dip down to touch the water in a pond or get close to a tree to grab a leaf souvenir. The landing happens in a location determined by the pilot based on terrain, wind, and speed. The chase vehicle tracks the balloon throughout using an app and shows up at the landing area to pick up guests. Once the balloon is deflated and loaded into the trailer, it’s time for champagne, toast, and snacks. After this, the guests are dropped back at the original meeting point. Photos clicked by Brian and the crew are shared at a later date via email.
By the time we met Brian and his crewmate Chino, the evening was shaping up to be a pleasant one. The sun was not shy anymore and was shining brightly. After introductions, Brian let a (regular) balloon lose to determine wind direction, speed, etc. It climbed swiftly and was soon a dark speck in the bright blue sky. Satisfied with the weather conditions, we all piled into the van with its attached trailer and took off. A second truck and trailer with another family that was doing a similar ride also went with us. Our launch point were the large open grounds of a church in Lucas. As part of the COVID precautions, we all wore masks and maintained a sufficient distance while on land. Brian and his crew also wore masks at all times. Brian offered us the option of removing the masks once on the flight, but we chose to keep them on, for the most part.
As we drove to the launch site, Brian enlightened us further. The Rohr ballooning operation is a family-owned business. Brian has been flying balloons since he was seventeen! He has over 20 years of experience running this business, and Chino has been working with him for seventeen years. Brian uses software called Foreflight, used by pilots to study the wind and weather patterns as well as flight traffic in the area. While he doesn’t have to get clearance from the McKinney airport, he called to let them know we were aboard once we took off. Brian said the pandemic was working in their favor, as they had many recent requests for flights. He mentioned that he liked morning rides better as the wind was generally more comfortable to work with and, thus, maneuverability was better than during the sunset tour.
Then came time for inflating the balloon, a ritual in itself. First, the deflated balloon was laid flat on the ground by moving the truck forward with the back trailer door open and pulling on the balloon. The basket gondola was then fitted with its four sided poles, propane tanks, and burners. Next, the balloon was tethered to the basket, which was laid on its side. A high-powered inflation fan was placed near the mouth of the balloon (or the envelope, as the website calls it), which blew cold air into the mouth, slowly allowing it to inflate. As this was happening, we stood on the sides of the envelope, holding it open and posing for photos. It was mesmerizing to watch this metamorphosis, as the balloon grew larger by the minute. Brian then used the burners to blow hot air, allowing the balloon to stand upright and finish the inflation process. This done, the gondola also slowly shifted to a standing position. The balloon now stood erect, colorful, charming, and almost regal in bearing!
Soon it was time for us to pile in. The gondola could accommodate the four of us and the pilot. But we had just enough room to maneuver around each other. We felt small as we stood in the basket, looking up at the top of the balloon overhead, almost 72 feet above us! And the radiant heat from the burners was intense! Luckily, the burners were used intermittently, so the heat was not felt all the time. Chino took photos of us, and then it was time for take-off! The tethering was let loose, and the balloon started to rise gradually. It was quite an experience to watch the ground get farther and farther away. Soon Chino was a speck on the field.
The views from above of Fairview were quite fantastic. Initially, we flew at about 1500 to 2000 feet above sea level. We were able to skim the tops of trees and try to grab some leaves. The sun shone fiercely to the west as our balloon glided gently above homes and streets. People came out of homes to stand in backyards and on front lawns, to cheer and wave. We cheered and waved back. Hot air balloons make people stop and stare and fascinate people. Our balloon was the cynosure of many eyes for the hour we flew overhead. People stopped cars to click photos of our ride. Children screamed and waved from the sunroof of vehicles.
Despite the summer evening, we were high enough to feel a cool breeze. The wind was nearly nonexistent at the start, and we moved at about three to four mph. Eventually, it picked up some, and we could go about seven mph. We found that North Texas is graced by many thousands of trees, something one cannot appreciate from the ground. Most homes in the Fairview area were spread out over a large area, and nearly everyone had a pool. The pilot pointed out Lake Lavon to the East, and Lake Lewisville to the west. We could make out Lake Ray Hubbard far to the southeast and the Dallas downtown in a shimmering haze to the southwest. It was quite an experience crossing US 75 in a hot air balloon. Next time I travel on that highway, I will be sure to remember that experience. Soon enough, we were flying over McKinney, crossing the country club, and heading further northeast. We could locate Chino and his truck at specific points. We tried to get close to some water features to do a dip, but the wind wasn’t cooperative enough.
After nearly an hour following take-off, Brian located a large area of almost flat land for our final landing. Just like the take-off, the landing was smooth. We had to push forward against the gondola’s forward edge as we came in for the final stop. We bounced slightly, but otherwise, it went well. Our landing attracted a lot of attention from locals in the community. Adults, teenagers, and young children all stood at the sidewalk, watching the balloon land. Shortly after, Chino joined us at the location. Our family got out of the balloon and moved to the sidewalk. The field where we landed was a little wet and muddy in certain places. So Brian and Chino “walked the balloon” to the edge where it was dry. As Chino set up the refreshment table, Brian set out to separate the balloon from the basket and deflate it. It was a tough job to gather the gigantic balloon and roll it up to fit into a large bag. A tremendous physical effort from the crew!
Soon, Brian joined us at the table. He offered the Balloonist’s Prayer, to keep with the age-old ballooning tradition to toast a successful ride. We enjoyed prosecco for the adults, juice for the kids, scones, fruit plates, and cookies. By then, the crowd had slowly dispersed. Once the balloon was loaded into the trailer and we were done with our refreshments, we piled back into the van for the ride back to Allen.
Our first balloon ride was a complete eye-opener. We had not thought before about the logistics of such a ride. It was quite interesting to watch the inflation process, the actual ride, and navigation, followed by deflating, packing, and putting away the balloon. It took a lot of work on the crew’s part. Ballooning is not something one does on a lark. This group is very passionate about flying balloons and taking people for a ride (no pun intended). Brian was the consummate professional, very much at ease in the balloon and out of it. And Chino was just as courteous. We never had any moments of doubts or anxiety during the whole trip. And felt safe through all of it. Unlike other rides, hot air balloons are exciting as launching and landing sites are determined based on weather conditions at that moment. What course one would chart during a flight is anyone’s guess as wind direction, speed determine where the pilot navigates the balloon. So no two balloon rides could be similar. Which means, I now have to figure out a way to get a sunrise tour in.
For first-timers, here are some recommendations from Brian’s email:
- Use toilet facilities at meeting place prior to the start of tour as none are available (understandably) elsewhere on the ride.
- Wear closed toed shoes, sneakers or boots with high socks as landing can be in a field or pasture.
- Bring along sunglasses, hats, wear sunscreen and bring along a small camera.
- Dress casually for whatever temperature is forecast on the ground. If it is cold, it is best to wear a couple layers of clothes along with a wind breaker to stay warm.
- Comfortable pants that allow riders to climb in and out of basket.
- Cancellations made by the customer more than 72 hours prior to the flight have the option to reschedule or receive a gift voucher. Cancellations made by the customer less than 72 hours prior to the flight will automatically be charged a $100 cancellation fee per passenger. All cancellations made less than 24 hours will not be refunded or rescheduled resulting in forfeiture of the full flight price. Weddings, tethers and other special events require an advanced cancellation notice of 1 week.
Contact details for Brian Rohr/Rohr Balloons:
Phone: 214-733-9915 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: rohrballoons.com