During the 1970s and ’80s central New Jersey was a popular spot for hot-air balloonists to do their thing. The usual flights were launched somewhere to the northwest of here — maybe in the Hopewell Valley area — and landed to the southeast, sometimes going as far as Monmouth County. Since balloons are at the mercy of prevailing winds — you can’t really “steer” them precisely — and the prevailing winds around West Windsor are usually from the northwest, that’s how they went. Once I followed a balloon that had passed over our house in Grovers Mill and found that it had landed on a farm in Cranbury, directly southeast of my house.
The surest way to tell if a balloon was approaching was to listen for the dogs barking. Somehow dogs could sense when there was something really big coming along way up in the air. In our neighborhood there were at least a half-dozen dogs — including our own — that were usually outside and within earshot at any time during the day. As a balloon approached, every one of them would start to bark. And they didn’t stop until the balloon had passed over and was well out of sight. When you heard more than one dog barking, you automatically looked up in the air to find the balloon.
Most of the flights over West Windsor were probably by privately owned balloons that were piloted by the owner. But there were a few balloon services in central New Jersey where one could go and pay for a ride. One such place was near Bordentown, and my wife and I were once adventurous enough to go and try it. We took off from an open area near Route 130 and flew — as expected — to the southeast. The basket contained two couples and a pilot.
After about 20 miles or so, we approached a town where it was decided we would land. The pilot was in radio contact with the “chase car” on the ground, and he made a perfect landing on the sidewalk in a residential development. The chase car was waiting for us on the spot, and within about 15 minutes the balloon was deflated and packed away in its trailer. The pilot drove us back to the starting point in the chase car. It couldn’t have gone more smoothly.
The only time I remember balloons actually taking off and starting a flight in West Windsor was a very special occasion. Actually, it was a wedding — honest. One day I was outside doing some gardening and I heard a commotion down near Grovers Mill Pond on Cranbury Road. I decided to walk down and see what was going on. When I went to VanNest Park, I saw two nearly inflated hot-air balloons sitting on the grass side-by-side. (The trees there were much smaller then than they are now.)
In the basket of one balloon were a bride and groom and a balloon pilot. The groom was in a tuxedo and the bride in a white, full-length bridal gown with veil and tiara. In the basket of the other balloon were a pilot and a minister dressed in black and holding a bible. At a signal, both balloons were released and began to lift off side by side.
Simultaneously we could hear the minister’s words as he began the wedding service. He hadn’t gotten much beyond “We are gathered here . . .” however, before it was obvious that the balloons were drifting apart, and he had to shout at the top of his lungs so the bride and groom could hear him. It went on like that until both balloons were about 200 feet in the air and even farther apart. By this time we couldn’t hear any voices because they were too far away. But I doubt they had come to the “I do” part by then.
The balloons continued to drift in the general direction of Cranbury, getting farther and farther apart as they went. If there was any radio communication between the two baskets, it was not evident as they took off. No one appeared to be holding a microphone. We never did find out if the couple ended up married and if the service was concluded in the balloons or not. But it was a unique balloon experience for West Windsor and the spectators.