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Mountain Home Magazine

A Lot of Hot Air

At age forty-two, the Great Wellsville Balloon Rally is one of the oldest hot air balloon rallies in New York State and one of the oldest continuing balloon rallies east of the Mississippi. And while visitors often pay a pretty penny to see balloons lift off in more famous towns, the GWBR is free. Visitors have only to bring lawn chairs or blankets to sit on the knolls surrounding the launch site, which is next to the Genesee River in Wellsville, to have a great view of the event. The mesmerizing effect of the GWBR (, scheduled for July 21, 22, and 23, is not unlike looking up through the branches of a Christmas tree at the brightly colored orbs suspended overhead. There are four launches scheduled: Friday night at 6 p.m., again at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday, and 6 a.m. Sunday morning.

If you’re new to balloon rallies, you may not know that...

  • Between thirty-five and forty hot air balloons all lift-off  at once, often vying to be the first into the air.
  • More often than not, the colorful orbs will drift over the picturesque village and countryside, landing in yards and bringing a bottle of wine for the property owner’s trouble.
  • When not floating over the village, the balloons head for the hills, where waiting photographers can catch startled horses and cows eyeing a balloon landing.
  • The audience can get up close and personal with the balloons, often times lending a hand as ground crew and even riding along with chase crews.
  • Many pilots will tether, lifting visitors into the air for a short ride for a small fee.

The GWBR got its start in the early 1970s when some local airplane enthusiasts thought it would be fun to hold an air show. While the air show attracted airplanes, it also attracted a hot air balloon. That caught the attention of local businessman Ray Stevens. A very few years later, the Great Wellsville Balloon Rally was launched, taking the place of the air show, and complete with Ray’s homemade balloon, named Beach Ball, for its colorful vertical panels.

It was only a few years after the airport launches that the economy changed. The airport turned into a retail area and the GWBR moved to the Island Park Lagoon Fields in the village where it still lifts off every third weekend in July. Right from the very beginning the rally attracted balloonists from across the New England states, the southern states, and from Canada. In fact, so many balloonists come down from north of the border that the rally organizers fly not only Old Glory at each launch, but also raise the Canadian flag. Both our national anthem and Oh, Canada are sung during the opening ceremonies.

Most people who have never attended a balloon rally do not realize that hot air balloons are rudderless and, as such, are at the mercy of the wind direction and do not return to the launch site as a matter of course. However, the balloonists who do make their way back to the Wellsville site provide a real treat for the audience. It’s called After Glow, and it works like this: after laying out their balloon as if for flight, they inflate them until the balloons stand upright, glowing brightly against the dark sky like colorful lanterns.

“It is really something to see when ten or more balloons all light up in the dark. The hard thing is to get them all to do it at the same time,” a former GWBR chairman says.

Along with the After Glow, the GWBR also hosts live music by local easy rock bands and on Saturday night there is a reworks display.

If the evening winds are too brisk to launch at 6 p.m., legend has it that the Wellsville Miracle takes over and promptly at 7 p.m. the wind dies. Within minutes the balloons lift off. During the down time, the balloonists and GWBR committee come up with other ways of entertaining the crowd. Local balloonists have been known to inflate a small balloon inside a larger balloon, or inflate an old balloon and let folks walk around inside it.

“You never quite know what is going to happen!” a former committee person exclaimed.

While Friday night of the rally is devoted to ballooning, on Saturday, after the morning launch has own, the Main Street Festival starts with over one hundred vendors stretching for three blocks and featuring everything from hand-thrown pottery to balloon animals, dunk tanks to climbing walls, handcrafted furniture to baskets. The Main Street Festival ends just in time for shoppers to grab a shuttle or walk to the park for the 6 p.m. launch.

Parking for the GWBR is on the outskirts of Wellsville along State Route 417, at the Northern Lights Plaza on the east side, and at the Riverwalk and Wellsville plazas on the west side. Parking is free and there are free shuttle buses to downtown and to the site. 

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