She weighs 440 pounds, with 20-foot ears and a curling, 49-foot trunk. Pea-Nut, the high-flying pachyderm, gave me the ride of my life at last year’s QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning.
At this year’s 32nd edition of the festival, July 25 through 27 at Solberg Airport in Readington, Pea-Nut herself won’t be on hand, but among the 100-plus hot-air balloons you can ride are several special shapes like Pea-Nut, including Jewel the Hummingbird, three different Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys, an Angry Bird, a panda, the PNC Bank American flag and the QuickChek Flighthouse—a lighthouse-shaped balloon.
Last year, a friend and I watched as ground crews first blew air into the balloons with a high-powered fan, then heated the air with the propane burner mounted above each gondola. Across the 80-acre site, food and beverage vendors, carnival games and rides were in high gear, and live music poured out of tents.
Liftoffs are scheduled when the wind is typically calmest, either just after sunrise or just before sunset. My friend and I took a sunset flight. As we waited for Pea-Nut’s legs and trunk to inflate, pilot Scott Saxton explained that the special-shape balloons are prone to spinning and can fly only short distances. After a safety briefing, he pointed out a field a few acres away, where other special-shape balloons were touching down. Clambering into Pea-Nut’s wicker basket, we immediately found ourselves in tight quarters, barely big enough for us and pilot Saxton.
The crew untied the anchors. We started to rise, heat radiating over us from the burner just above our heads. Saxton kept adjusting the hissing flame. We rose above the festival grounds with unexpected speed, enjoying the rare birds-eye view. In the distance, a crew was preparing the main stage for a band. The aroma of frying funnel cake wafted up from the ground. We moved smoothly, responding to the shifting breezes. As predicted, the balloon spun—an experience not recommended for those prone to motion sickness.
Suddenly we began our descent. “Unlock your knees!” Saxton commanded. “Brace for landing!” Squatting like a frog, I grabbed the basket’s sides and screamed. The basket hit the ground, bounced and tipped over, dragging us to a sideways stop with help from a ground crew. We crawled out into high grass full of chirping crickets. Brushing ourselves off, we set out for beers, pulled-pork sliders and live rock music.