Air Ventures Hot Air Balloon Flights, Inc03/08/2018 10:58AM ● By Stone Lieberman
By Richard L. Gaw
Normally, the launch of a life's passion begins at a particular speck of time, a point of pure clarity that crystallizes one's purpose down to a single moment, but to trace Deb Harding's life in order to understand why hot air balloon flight has become her life's work is to count the moments off, one by one.
As a grade schooler growing up in Devon, she read a biography of Amelia Earhart. Around that time, she stumbled upon a flight manual, assuming at first that it belonged to her father but later finding out it was her mother's. By the time she was old enough, Harding began to take her own flight lessons at Shannon Airport and Wings Field.
“When I was in my late twenties, a girlfriend asked me if a wanted to go on a balloon flight with her,” said Harding, who has owned and operated Chester County-based Air Ventures Hot Air Balloon Flights, Inc. since 1990. “She and her husband were given a flight as a gift, and he didn’t want his feet to leave the ground, so I told her, 'Sure, of course.' It wasn’t really love at first flight, and it wasn’t until later when I met the pilot on the ground that I became smitten with the idea that “Life is about the journey and not the destination.'”
The pilot then made Harding an offer that changed her life.
“He said he would teach me to fly for free if I would crew for him,” she said. “Hot air ballooning is a group sport. You can’t fly without crew, and the best flight times for ballooning are right at sunrise and two hours before sunset, so it was very easy for me to continue my nine-to-five job and continue to enjoy an early-morning flight or an evening of flying after work.”
Fore the past 28 years, from team-building activities to romantic excursions to dinner and Sunday brunch, Air Ventures Hot Air Balloon Flights have become pilots of the skies, revealing the beauty of Chester County like a portrait for individuals, couples, families and businesses. Throughout the year, the company's signature neon-colored balloons can be seen over Marsh Creek, Longwood Gardens, even as far as Winterthur.
From Air Venture launch sites in Eagle and Chester Springs on a clear day, the view from the balloon includes the Delaware River Bay area and the Philadelphia skyline.
“We've seen Bald Eagles fly right beside our balloons, seen people tubing on the Brandywine River, and flown over beautiful estates, hunt scenes and colorful trees of fall,” Harding said. “In the balloon or from the ground, who doesn’t love a balloon? It brings out the child-like awe in everyone.”
Now well into its second decade, the Chester County Balloon Festival was first developed as a fundraising event to raise money for the West Bradford Youth Association, in order to help the group cover maintenance fees associated with the soccer fields. Since moving to the New Garden Flying Field in Toughkenamon in 2015, however, the festival – sponsored in part by Air Ventures – has become one of Chester County's most successful annual events. The expanded three-day schedule includes the flight – and illumination – of more than 20 hot-air balloons, plane and helicopter rides, scuba diving lessons, zipline rides, food and craft vendors, and remote control plane demonstrations, fireworks and local bands. In the past three years, more than 50,000 people have attended the festival.
“The Chester County Balloon Festival allows us to highlight Chester County, general aviation and family fun, through this long time Chester County activity of ballooning,” Harding said. “The experience that Flying Field General Manager Jon Martin brings to the table – with his long history of running a successful airs shows at the Flying Field, and the expanded three day schedule – have allowed us to have a successful festival in recent years. The venue lends itself perfectly to have more aviation related entertainment.”
As the Chester County Balloon Festival staff and volunteers prepare for the 12th annual Chester County Balloon Festival from June 22-24 at the New Garden Flying Field, they do so with the understanding that there is another component to the mission of the festival.
On a recommendation from Rick Schimpf, Air Ventures' long time balloonmiester and crew chief – and a volunteer firefighter for the Lionville Fire Station – recommended that the festival also serve as a fundraiser for the Chester County Hero Fund, which provides necessary financial assistance to the widows, children, and families who are left with little or no support when a police officer, deputy sheriff, firefighter, emergency medical technician, paramedic or state trooper loses his/her life or is seriously injured in the line of duty.
“Several years ago, Rick was on a fire call in West Chester, where a fireman was killed,” Harding said. “He saw that the Chester County Hero Fund was at that family's door the very next day with a check to support the family during this traumatic time. With the first garnering of support from Jon Martin, the Chester County Balloon Festival has been able to raise both funds and awareness of the Chester County Hero Fund, promote the science and education of aviation and the airport, as well as showcase the many youth organizations that promote leadership and community.”
Throughout her life, Harding has flown in hot air balloons in five of the seven continents of the world, and became the first woman to pilot a hot air balloon over the North Pole. While she may count the Loire Valley in France as among the most beautiful vistas she has seen, rare is the day that goes by when she is not grateful to own a hot air balloon company in Chester County.
“Everything is perfect from above, and when you are aloft, you think of nothing else but just the moment you are in,” Harding said. “I consider ballooning an activity that is best shared, unlike fixed wing where you can roll out your plane and go fly.
“Chester County is beautiful, and who wouldn’t want to see it from all of its many angles?”
To learn more about Air Ventures Hot Air Balloon Flights, visit www.air-ventures.com, or call 800-826-6361. To learn more about the 12th annual Chester County Balloon Festival, visit www.ccballoonfest.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected]