Story from the sky



(Susquehanna River Valley, Oneonta, New York. Taken from the basket of Pircilla, Queen of the sky, Hot Air Balloon)


ONEONTA, NY - As the sun crests over the hilltops of the Susquehanna River Valley, the early morning fog slowly lifts to reveal the little hillside town of Oneonta, New York. It is 5:30 a.m. and a team of men and women diligently remove the tools of their craft out from the bright yellow pickup truck, known simply as the chase vehicle. The contents include a large wicker basket, two large tanks of propane, a juiced up duel gas burner, and 200 pounds of nylon, Velcro and ropes. All of this to launch their hot air balloon Pricilla, Queen of the Sky

(Mike Caccavale filling up Old McDonalds farm, one of his balloons with hot air, interior)

           Michael Caccavale of East Rockaway, New York, is the pilot and owner of Storybook Balloons. For the last 18 years, “since the first time I laid eyes on a Hot Air Balloon”, Caccavale fell in love, and has piloted balloons in all corners of the world.

Pricilla is the first to take flight in a fleet of eight balloons on this clear fall morning in early September. She quickly leaves the ground and the commotion of civilization behind her. Taking a moment to conduct the last few checks, Caccavale and his co-pilot, Jim Burgess, breath a deep sigh of relief, ready to enjoy the flight to wherever the wind takes them.
            Today the wind has decided they are to fly due west, despite that the pibal flew directly east just moments before. A pibal is what the ground-crew calls “a fancy name for a regular sized helium balloon.” This is a tool to determine which direction the air is flowing at certain altitudes, and is released from the ground moments before launch. Caccavale has other methods for determining air speeds and directions above as well as below him during flights. He is one of 7,500 pilots operating hot air balloons in the United States today.


           On the ground, co-pilot Jim Burgess’s wife, Debbie, and son, Cody, quickly close up the hatches of the trailer, jump into the cab of the truck and take chase. A final radio check is conducted just for good measure. As Pricilla gains in altitude a quick jet of hot air directed from Caccavale keeps the balloon right where he wants her to be. Down below, seven other ballooners take flight after Caccavale, Burgess, and their crew.



           The winds are gentle and calm on this morning. Early morning fog down the valley can still be seen settled in over the nearby town of Otego, this Caccavale states, “is an indication of still air, or no wind.” The two-man team soars slowly and silently over roof and treetops. With the occasional burst of red-hot flame to keep her safely above the world below, relaxation sets in. The world below is a beautiful place, and a ride high above it seems to really drive that home for the two old friends in a wicker basket.




(Mike Caccavale)

            The Burgess family has no desire to perform these duties for money. For Cody and his parents, Hot Air Ballooning is a bonding experience rooted in love. It is a chance to spend much appreciated time together, for it almost wasn’t so. Cody, who looks 13, is actually almost 22. At the age of eight Cody was diagnosed with cancer, the kind matters little. 13 years later and cancer free, this family is happy to be awake, and happy to be doing an activity they enjoy, during a beautiful sunrise on an early Sunday morning, just as long as they are able to do it together.

(Cody Burgess, son oj Jim and Debbie Burgess, on the ground after the flight.)

          The Burgess family has no desire to perform these duties for money. For Cody and his parents, hot air ballooning is a bonding experience rooted in love. It is a chance to spend much appreciated time together, for it almost wasn’t so. Cody, who looks 13, is actually almost 22. At the age of eight Cody was diagnosed with cancer, the kind matters little. Thirteen years later and cancer free, this family is happy to be awake, and happy to be doing an activity they enjoy, during a beautiful sunrise on an early Sunday morning, just as long as they are able to do it together.





Up ahead the pilots spot a field for landing. They carry with them only a bottle of champagne and the hope that the landowners are awake. It is the tradition in ballooning to have a bottle of bubbly ready, to greet whoever will have them. Caccavale adheres to these traditions.
Pulling one of the lines to open a vent in the envelope hot air escapes the top of the balloon and they start to descend. Luckily someone is awake on this bit of land. Behind them seven more balloons carry seven more crews, each with a different story of where they have come from, and where they plan to go.
- Korey Rowe

(Mrs. Haven, Cody, Mike, Debbie)