You could say, in a sense, Bob Ward has always had his head in the clouds.
Ever since the Quakertown native can remember, he wanted to be a pilot.
"I always liked anything that flies," he said. "It started with airplanes; Cessnas. I got my private pilot’s license in 1979. But in 1986 my neighbor bought a hot air balloon. I started as a crew member."
From there, Ward said, his love of hot air ballooning grew. Not only was it freeing to be in the skies without the encompassing metal aircraft, with spectacular views, the human aspect of ballooning also appealed to him.
"You really get to interact with your passengers. When somebody’s excited about a balloon flight and they can hardly wait to do it, that’s the best. This is more of a blessing than if I had realized my original dream of piloting 747’s. There you are just flying a computer essentially."
Several years later he obtained his commercial ballooning license, which included a practicum, written and oral test from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). In 1990 Ward founded On Your Way Up ballooning. He said it was one of the best choices he’s made in his lifetime.
He also appreciates being the vehicle that many utilize to mark special occasions. Over the years he has piloted many flights which included birthday celebrations, proposals and even wedding ceremonies.
He has taken people up as young as 3 and as old as 95.
The process of ballooning is simple. The balloon itself is unfurled, inflated with fans blowing cold air, and then filled with hot air from propane burners. After passengers board the basket, the balloon rises as the increasing hot air is less dense than cold air. The pilot fires the burners to ascend farther, or uses a cord to open a parachute valve/vent at the top of the balloon to allow cooler air in at a controlled rate to descend.
The pilot can change direction by ascending or descending as the winds blow different directions at different altitudes.
But there is more to flying a balloon than meets the eye. While Ward said equipment malfunctions are extremely rare, decision-making is a big factor in flight. It’s a whole different skill set than flying a plane. It is an industry where experience is invaluable.
Ward noted that the Quakertown area is a great one to fly in since the people are so friendly. And by people he means landowners, as the hot air balloons he pilots are ultimately ruled by Mother Nature and the conditions in the skies. Most rides last about an hour, but how far the balloon travels is completely up to the wind.
While the weather is the biggest challenge of his industry, Ward said it doesn’t bother him or most of his clients. Safety is of the utmost importance and they don’t fly if the winds are in excess of 10 mph or there is the threat of bad weather including rain or snow.
Many of his November flights are rescheduled flights from earlier in the season, mostly October, his busiest month, when people want to take in the fall foliage.
His season runs year-round, but most flights are scheduled from April through November when the air isn’t so frigid.
Ward has also been involved in competitive ballooning. He took honors in competition at the 1992 National Ballooning Championship in Middletown, Ohio, where pilots who qualify compete in a 10-day-long series of races. The races test accuracy and maneuvering, not speed.
"You are up there with 100 balloons at the same time. It’s a sight to see," noted Ward, citing being above the clouds at 10,000 feet. "And it’s really fun."
For his passengers, most of them first-time fliers, just being up that high is a thrill.
Last Tuesday, Linda Jaeger of Pennsburg and Dana Clark of Sellersville were celebrating their 59th and 38th birthdays, respectively, with a balloon ride. The two friends, teachers at Upper Bucks Christian School, are no strangers to thrill-seeking though. They have been bungee-jumping and have flown in a small aircraft in Alaska, landing on a glacier, among other adventures.
Leanne and Jon Kehler and their 9-year-old daughter Courtney said they were looking forward to the experience, despite a little case of the jitters on Courtney’s part. The Harleysville family won the flight in an auction fundraiser for a family member’s adoption.
"I’ll probably never do something like this again," explained Leanne Kehler. "It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s on the bucket list."
After the ride was over, Leanne said the experience was breathtaking; something she would recommend to others who have the opportunity.
"It was beautiful. It was really quiet up there and smooth. It was a great experience."
For more information on On Your Way Up Ballooning, visit onyourwayupballooning.com or call (610)390-6897.