Main Street Business

Up, Up And Away

By Published On: June 3rd, 2023

June is the month of adventure for Main Street Magazine, and of Father’s Day. Darrel Long spoke to Main Street early on a Saturday morning about his passion for hot-air ballooning and Spirit Ballooning, the business that brings his family together.

Why do you only fly at sunrise?

For ballooning, winds are safest below five knots per hour. A balloon is a big, inflated bag – 90,000 cubic feet of air – which is a huge sail with a lot of kinetic energy. In the sky you are at the mercy of the wind. Early morning is the quietest and calmest time of the day. We actually had to cancel our flight this morning because the tops of the trees were fluttering. This morning may look like a perfect day to go up in a balloon, but the winds above the treetops are too stiff at 14 to 18 nautical miles per hour. 

How do you steer a balloon?

You don’t. The only way to guide a balloon’s direction is to rise or descend to different altitudes. The uneven heating of earth and the Coriolis effect cause the wind to change directions at different altitudes. We never know exactly where the winds will take us, and we have to consider prevailing weather conditions. Low-pressure systems turn counterclockwise and high pressure turns clockwise. There are many online tools to help us predict roughly where we will travel.  

What happens if there is very little wind?

Winds can be too calm, and you won’t go very far at all. At times we will just float in a mile wide circle and come right back where we started. We call it a hole in one. It’s not very exciting for the ground crew. They just hang out for an hour.

What sort of team do you need to fly a balloon?

You need a pilot and a ground crew. In ballooning the ground crews are typically unpaid volunteers who show up to learn, get a free balloon ride, and take a lesson if there’s room in the basket. The ground crew is responsible for transporting the balloon to the launch site, helping to inflate it, and then following it as best they can to pick up passengers, deflate, and pack up the balloon. It’s really hard work! The equipment for our family sedan balloon, which carries five people, weighs over 700 pounds.

How much does a balloon ride cost?

We charge $350 per person for an hour ride with a champagne celebration at the end. Our operations are very restricted by weather. Often, like this morning, we have to cancel flights because of wind conditions. We can only carry a maximum of four passengers at a time. It’s expensive for a number of reasons, mainly our fixed costs. The balloon fabric itself is expensive and lasts for only 500 hours of flying, and the propane for the burner is also costly. And there’s insurance, which is really expensive. Only a few insurance carriers offer it. 

Our business offsets some of the costs of our operations, and we meet fantastic people. When we don’t have a client on a perfect flying day, my son, Jordan, and I will take our small balloon “sports car,” which holds only one or two people, and fly away with no ground crew. Wherever we land we just flag down someone with a pick-up truck and ask them to take us home.

Are people surprised when you land on their lawn or in their field?

Most people are delighted. In fact, that’s how we got on TV. We landed near the Great Barrington Airport near the yard of Dorinda Medley, who was on the show Real Housewives of New York. She was so taken with our surprise balloon appearance that she arranged for us to be included in an episode of the mini-series Former Real Housewives of New York. Another time we landed in a field and were greeted by an older woman bringing us baked goods. The family was having a reunion and invited us all to join them. We enjoyed it so much that they invited us back every year – even without the balloon. There was a time when we landed in an illegal marijuana field in New York and the owner made us take off and land someplace else. In thirty years of ballooning, I’ve only received six complaints, mainly from uptight people.

Do you ever travel with your balloon?

Our son Jordan does a lot of traveling with his “sports car” balloon that he made himself. The basket and balloon weigh only 72 pounds, which can be checked as baggage on an airplane.  He carries on the burner, which is more delicate. Wherever he arrives, he can borrow a propane tank from another balloonist. Jordan, who is a JetBlue pilot, hopes to be headed back to Ireland for the invitation only Irish Hot Air Ballooning Championships in September.

How did you become a balloonist?

As a kid I loved planes and helicopters. One year my parents gave me a gift certificate for an introductory glider lesson. I took more lessons and became a glider pilot. Then I took my girlfriend up, and she hated the tight cockpit and flying around in circles to catch the thermal updrafts. I gave  this same girlfriend, now my wife of 33 years, a gift of a hot-air balloon ride for her 21st birthday. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we volunteered to become members of the ground crew. Thirty years ago, there was a balloon festival almost every weekend in New England. If you helped out on the ground, you could get a free lesson if there was space in the balloon. It took a few years to get my license. Most people don’t want to lend you a balloon to get certified, so I decided to make my own. I designed it with the help of some ballooning friends, and a Lotus spreadsheet. I bought 900 yards of ripstop nylon and sewed my own balloon. I had to learn how to use a sewing machine – it took me five months.

Next the FAA inspected the balloon and granted it an airworthiness certificate. To get a balloon license you need many hours of dual instruction, solo hours, and a written and practical exam. During my first solo flight I was really a test pilot for my balloon. All this took a few years. My wife and I got married and started building our own ground crew – four kids who started going up in our balloons at age three.

When did this become a business?

As the kids got older, they all wanted to get a license. We started our business in 2009 as a way to help defray expenses. 

How do you get customers? What are they like?

We advertised a little bit in the beginning, but now it’s mostly word of mouth, return customers, and people who see us flying around and track us down. A lot of people find us on Google even though we don’t buy ads. Also, there are fewer and fewer registered balloonists – I think only four in the entire state of Connecticut are offering commercial rides right now. 

Our customers are people with a sense of adventure who are willing to get up before sunrise and hop into a balloon basket. They are celebrities and neighbors. We don’t allow children under the age of five because passengers must follow instructions, and children are usually frightened by the sound of the burner creating the hot air.

What are the important instructions?

The most important thing is not to hop out of the basket too soon. Wait until I say it’s safe. Customers have to be physically fit enough to climb into the basket and be able to stand for an hour during the flight. When landing we tell passengers to bend their knees, be prepared for touch down and hang on. Safety is our priority. 

Has climate change affected ballooning?

Thirty years ago, we might enjoy a Bermuda high-pressure system that was ideal for flying and could last a week or even two. Now the weather changes more rapidly, and there aren’t long periods of perfect balloon weather.

What’s your favorite flight?

Taking off from my own backyard on a clear day in our smallest balloon and sailing above the Connecticut River Valley or looking at the Boston or New York skylines on clear days. No flight is ever the same, and where you land is always a surprise.

Do you have a day job?

Yes, I’m vice president of Deposit Operations for Salisbury Bank and Trust. •

To learn more about Spirit Ballooning, you can call them at (860) 464-4359 or visit them online at