Free balloon rides offer overhead view of Festival of Lights
By ELIOT BROWN
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
Published Monday, December 18, 2006
EAST PEORIA - Sometimes the price is just right.
Such was the case in the parking lot of the East Peoria Festival of Lights,
aka Folepi, on Wednesday evening as the festival launched its newest
attraction - free hot air balloon rides through the holiday season.
With the day's last bit of light disappearing on the horizon, UAB Aviation
of Missouri offered rides to a modest line of people, taking them up about
80 feet in the air for a quick five-minute ride.
Looking on as the balloon made its first run of the night about 5 p.m.,
Illinois Central College student Nicole Whittenburg watched as the pilot
ignited the propane burners, sending a large flame into the hollow chamber
"I don't get how it works," said Whittenburg, who was taking a break from
studying for finals to hitch a free ride. "You add fire to go up and you add
more fire to go down." The balloon has a giant blue, green and
white-checkered envelope with a huge "OSF Health Plans" insignia in the
middle. Lit up in the night's sky, it acts as a glowing billboard of sorts
for its sponsor, allowing UAB to give rides at public events free of charge.
For each short ride, about six people pile into a wicker basket at the
balloon's base. With a few pulls of the propane, the two giant burners -
like those of a kitchen stove range multiplied many thousands of times -
turn the air above hotter, carrying the vehicle up in the sky.
While the flight feels a bit uncontrolled, with no rudders, brakes or
steering wheels, four tethers, anchored to light poles and a city van below,
soon kick in, stopping the journey at about 80 feet.
The view isn't anything out of a postcard, as the modest hills surrounding
the area prevent riders from seeing the Peoria skyline or the Winter
Wonderland. But the feeling up top was rather calm and quiet, riders said,
as the balloon just floated in the air.
On longer rides, without an anchor, the trip is peaceful, pilot Michael
Weaver said as he tugged on the propane line, easing the balloon's descent.
"You can hear people below, you can see deer. It's really a beautiful
experience just to be there with the wind."
The offer of free balloon rides, which are scheduled to last until Dec. 31,
caught East Peoria by surprise. Owner UAB called the city with the offer
about 10 days ago.
"It was such a surprise," said Jill Peterson, public relations coordinator.
"We thought they may want to stay for just one or two days and be done, but
they said, 'We want to stay for the whole festival.'"
But the balloon certainly fits in with the broader festival, Peterson said.
"If you've ever seen them at night, they look like Christmas ornaments."
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