Catching the drift: Grand Adventure Balloon Tours makes flying a pleasure |

Catching the drift: Grand Adventure Balloon Tours makes flying a pleasure

Anna Winkel / Special to the Sky-Hi News
Staff Photo |

History of Ballooning

Sept. 19, 1783: Scientist Pilatre De Rozier launched “Aerostat Reveillon” with a sheep, a duck and a rooster aboard

Nov. 21, 1783: French brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier launched from Paris and flew successfully for 20 minutes

1785: First crossing of the English Channel

1793: First balloon flight in North America (110 years before the Wright Brothers’ airplane flight)

1932: First balloon flight to the stratosphere (52,498 feet)

1987: First hot air balloon crossing of the Atlantic (2,900 miles, 33 hours)

1991: First hot air balloon Pacific crossing (6,700 miles in 47 hours)

1999: First around the world flight

Every day is truly an adventure for Jack Castellion. When the Grand Adventures Hot Air Balloon Rides owner and pilot takes flight in the morning, he never knows exactly where he will land.

But it is more likely than not that the landing will be picture perfect.

“Cheated death again,” Castellion said jokingly, as he touched down flawlessly near Tabernash on a recent flight.

With over 20 years flying and an average of 200 days per year in the air, Castellion has the practiced hand of an experienced pilot.

“He’s like a wizard.”Sue CastellionAbout her husband’s balloon piloting abilities

Plus, ballooning comes naturally to him.

“He’s like a wizard. He has a perfect safety record. He’s really an excellent pilot,” says his partner in life and business, Sue Castellion, adding that sometimes “you’re born to do something.” Jack was born to fly.

Hot air ballooning depends on the air currents, temperatures, and prevailing winds. Castellion is not technically “steering” the balloons he pilots year-round in Grand County skies. Technically, they drift in the same direction and at the same speed as the wind.

But that is not to say Castellion doesn’t need a lot of knowledge and skill.

To prepare for each flight, Castellion sets off a “pie-ball” — a pilot information balloon — which is helium balloon just like those given out at birthday parties, and watches it as it rises. It gives him the information he needs for the launch of his 245,000 cubic-foot balloon christened Wyakis, which means “Slow Dog” in a Native American language of the Pacific Northwest.

Hot air balloons get as large as 400,000 cubic feet of air (each cubic foot is roughly the size of a basketball) in the United States and up to 700,000 cubic feet in Europe.

Lift off in a hot air balloon is so gradual that those with weak stomachs or who suffer from acrophobia find it less abrupt and less frightening than other types of flying.

“People often go to get over a fear of heights,” Sue said.

Children age 4 and older can fly, and the Castellions take passengers well into their 80s and people with a wide range of disabilities.

In the sky

The propane burners fire up and Castellion and his passengers rise off the ground so smoothly, you hardly notice that you are moving.

Once airborne, Castellion wears many hats: He is part meteorologist, part historian, part wildlife safari leader and part joke-cracking tour guide. He spots antelope grazing in a field far below and has binoculars ready. He offers encyclopedic explanations of the peaks, landmarks, wildlife and history of everything within the panoramic view.

“I was impressed with how knowledgeable he was about the area,” said Ryan Taylor, who was visiting Grand County from near Dallas, Texas. Taylor and his girlfriend, Alexa Ruebeck, booked a Grand County Adventure Ballooning trip because of all the excellent online reviews.

“I really enjoyed seeing all of those mountain ranges,” Ruebeck said, referring to the white-topped peaks visible up to 100 miles away in five different counties.

When his passengers are comfortable and oriented, Castellion breaks out the bubbles.

He blows a few and watches as they drift, giving clues to the patterns of the air currents.

“As the sun warms up, the winds are constantly changing,” he said.

The bubbles also help the passengers understand how the balloon is moving. Castellion explains that even though it appears the bubbles are drifting upwards, it is actually the balloon that is dropping — at a rate of 600 feet per minute — but you hardly feel it at all.

The pie-ball, the bubbles, and the “spitometer” — spitting over the edge of the wicker basket — are all ways that Castellion tests flight conditions.

“Those are our high-tech instruments in ballooning,” he said.

Becoming a ballooner

Castellion moved to Grand County in 1985. After a few years working seasonal jobs, he moved to Steamboat Springs for a summer. It was there he discovered ballooning and began his training as a pilot.

Castellion received his license, which is regulated by the FAA, and moved back to Grand County. He started Grand Adventure Balloon Tours in 1995. This summer marks the company’s 20th anniversary.

But the Castellions didn’t stay rooted here the entire time — after he and Sue were married they moved to the Napa, Calif., area, where their daughter, who is now in college, was born. Her first flight was two days before her second Birthday.

Castellion has flown in 24 states, including his native Wisconsin, Florida, and numerous flights in the Palm Springs and Napa areas of California.

“But we like it here the best,” Sue said, because of the quality of the flying conditions, along with their love of the mountains. Other areas don’t boast the box winds and gentle landings that are easier to navigate in this valley than elsewhere, she explained.

The Castellions and a few crew members make this small business feel authentic in every way; back on the ground Sue serves a traditional champagne breakfast and picks up where Jack left off. She explains ballooning’s rich history and presents each passenger with mementos of their journey as “aeronauts,” which is Latin for “sky sailor.”

Grand Adventure Balloon Tours offers rides year-round. The temperatures in the air can be 20 to 60 degrees warmer than on the ground, so the crew has even flown at temperatures as low as 30 below.

Hot air ballooning is a unique way to celebrate special occasions — engagements, anniversaries, graduations, and other holidays. Grand Adventure Balloon Tours have a 10-passenger basket as well as a 2-person. After the family spread some ashes of a close friend, Sue started received calls requesting that service for others, as well as beloved pets.

Although many of the passengers are tourists visiting the area, locals can see their home through a whole new lens from 2,000 feet off the ground.

“I’ve taken people up who have lived here for 30 or 40 years and they see things they never saw before.” Castellion said.

To contact Grand Adventures Balloon Tours, visit their website, or call 970-887-1340.

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