Full of Hot Air

Business is booming at Delmarva Balloon Rides, thanks to a new crop of customers looking for socially distanced adventure

Written by Katie Riley
Photography courtesy Todd Davis

There are many beautiful spots in the Delmarva region to enjoy fall foliage, but nothing can beat the view from a hot-air balloon. Soaring high above the treetops and observing nature’s spectrum from above is an adventure unlike any other. 

“Fall is undoubtedly the most beautiful time to take a balloon ride,” said Todd Davis, founder and owner of Delmarva Balloon Rides. “The temperature is perfect, and the scenery is spectacular.”

Twenty years ago, a chance encounter led to Davis’ lifelong passion for ballooning. He was working in a restaurant when a customer mentioned that he needed an extra hand to help crew his hot-air balloon. Davis jumped at the opportunity, and after one ride, he was hooked. He soon got his license as a commercial balloon pilot and in 2008 created Delmarva Balloon Rides, one of only a handful of hot-air balloon companies in the Mid-Atlantic. The company operates a fleet of eight balloons with baskets that can hold anywhere from two to 10 passengers. Flights take off from Ridgley or Greensboro in Caroline County.   

Once in the air, a patchwork quilt of the area’s farmland, forests and rivers unfolds. The balloon climbs 2,000 feet as passengers are treated to 360-degree views, the rising sun illuminating the sky, painting the treetops orange, red and gold. The sun reflects on the nearby Choptank River and glistens across the Bay in the distance.

Since the 18th century, people have been fascinated with the magic of hot-air ballooning. The use of hot air to generate buoyancy has a simplicity that continues to appeal, even more so in modern times. In the past few months, the pastime has brought a whole new brand of customer, looking for a solitary or socially distanced adventure.

“I am pretty busy most of the year, but since the pandemic, business is booming,” Davis said.

Six or seven mornings per week, Davis is up before sunrise to test the winds and weather before taking a small group up on a flight. After setting up the basket that will carry his passengers, Davis tests the propane torch that powers the balloon. Hot-air balloons are powered by a propane tank, which heats the air inside the balloon, expanding the material and eventually causing it to rise from the ground. Prior to takeoff, Davis often releases a small helium balloon with a light inside, to see where it travels.

“There are a lot of factors that go into a successful flight,” Davis said. “Because ballooning is based on the winds that day, I will often do a test before takeoff, to gauge the direction of the wind.”

Indeed, weather phenomena play a significant role in ballooning. Winds must be ideal and cannot exceed 5 or 6 mph at takeoff. Storms in the area must be at least 100 miles away, and clouds should be high enough that the balloon remains at least 500 feet below any cloud cover. Early morning is the ideal time for a balloon flight, as thermal heating that occurs throughout the day plays a role in conditions. 

When the weather is ideal, ballooning can be safer than car travel, and accidents are extremely rare. According to statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board, ballooning is the safest sport in air aviation. Davis notes that the biggest surprise in ballooning is what a calm ride it can be. Because the balloon rises with the heat and is directed by the winds, the flight can feel almost motionless. 

“I have a lot of passengers who are afraid to fly on a plane, who are maybe afraid of heights, and they are always pleasantly surprised by how peaceful a balloon flight can be,” Davis said. “I joke that they will go from chicken to eagle in as little as 30 seconds.”

The hour-long flight is followed by Champagne and a short discussion of the history of hot-air ballooning. Passengers receive a certificate commemorating their first balloon flight and have the option to purchase a video of the experience.

For most, the flight will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For Davis, who operates hundreds of flights per year, the novelty still hasn’t worn off. “It just never gets old.”