Up, Up and Away


Conner Prairie balloon has become a symbol and popular attraction at the park

By Ann Craig-Cinnamon

You can see the colorful balloon high in the sky over Fishers from miles away. The Conner Prairie balloon, which is filled with helium not hot air, is one of approximately 60 similar balloons in service around the world. There’s one at the San Diego Zoo and Disney’s got one too, among many other venues. But Conner Prairie is the only institution of its kind to own one.

If you wondered what a balloon has to do with Conner Prairie and Indiana history, you’re not alone says Cathy Ferree, Vice President of Exhibits, Programs, Interpretation and Facilities.

“It’s very funny because at first people were like ‘what are they doing putting in a balloon? How does that fit with Conner Prairie?’ and then once you explain it to them, they’re like ‘wow, it really fits with Conner Prairie,’” she says.

The balloon is part of an exhibit called 1859 Balloon Voyage which illustrates the first attempt ever at an airmail flight. That attempt happened just up the road in Lafayette, Ind., back in 1859 when a balloonist by the name of John Wise attempted to deliver 123 letters to New York City in his balloon, The Jupiter. Unfavorable winds forced him to land in Crawfordsville, Ind., but the attempt went down in history as the first official airmail delivery run for the U.S. Post Office.

Ferree, who came to Conner Prairie six years ago to implement the balloon project, says the idea is to integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into the museum’s interactive experience.

“We found this to be the perfect opportunity to show how technology influenced people’s lives and what they did. And it was also an innovation. They were hoping that these balloons could fly you continental, coast to coast. Needless to say, the train took that over and it didn’t work out quite the way they planned. So there was that great history story. And then on top of it, Indiana had the first airmail delivery,” she says. “Innovation keeps moving us forward. And it’s great to show people and particularly young people, how innovation works. This was tried, it was tested, it was tried again and tested and, unfortunately it didn’t work out, but they tried something else.”

She points out that balloons may not have been used to deliver mail but they did end up being used for many other things including for weather forecasting. She says it’s the old adage of “if at first you don’t succeed: try, try again” which is the message Conner Prairie is trying to impart with its Create Connect exhibit.

The balloon itself is made by a German company and contracted through a French company. Chris Greiling, who is the chief pilot and in charge of the balloon, says it’s a very physical job to take care of it. Since it is never taken down, even in winter, there’s lots of maintenance and upkeep.

“The most difficult part of the job is probably deciding whether or not to fly on any given day. You’re in the Midwest and, as you know, it can be dicey, especially during our summer season with thunderstorms and wind. Wind is my enemy,” Greiling says.

There are eight certified pilots that fly the balloon and one is always on-board during the tethered, 15-minute journey. As for safety, Greiling says one question he often gets is what happens if the cable breaks?

“Not much other than it’s just going to continue to go up and continue to fly. It’s not going to fall out of the sky. We become like a hot air balloon that you normally see,” he says and adds that it has never happened to any of the balloons in service around the world. Ferree says there have been no safety issues whatsoever.

At the beginning of next season, the balloon will get a new envelope, which is the orange and yellow outside part of the balloon. Greiling says they will transfer the helium from the current balloon into the new one which could take 24 hours and help from lots of volunteers.

He says that the FAA recognizes the balloon as entertainment not an aircraft. It certainly has been entertaining thousands of people. Its first year, 2009, saw 22,000 riders and in 2013 there were more than 20,000.

Ferree thinks the balloon has become an important part of Fishers.

“It’s become an icon for Fishers as well because you can see it from a really good distance around here. The Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau did support the original exhibit and inflation of the balloon because they believe it is an attractor,” she says.

1859 Balloon Voyage

Open – April through October, weather permitting

Tickets – $15 per person ($12 for members) in addition to the General Admission charge

Flights during Symphony on the Prairie – $20 per person ($17 for members) in addition to the price of the Symphony on the Prairie ticket.

Length of ride – 15 minutes

Height reached – 350 feet