Corrections or additions?
This article by Phyllis B. Maguire was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on July 22, 1998. All rights reserved.
Balloons & the Magic of Alexandria
I decided to keep doing it till I got it right."
That was Linda Castner’s reaction to the first hot air balloon
at her family’s airport 10 years ago. Since then she has focused her
considerable talents on building a better mousetrap so well that
planning is now a year-round activity, or as Castner puts it,
no between anymore."
This year’s Magic of Alexandria festival, set for Friday through
August 7 through 9, promises to live up to its theme: "Celebrate,
Celebrate, Celebrate." In the decade since Castner took over the
festival, it has — well — ballooned:
From an average of 18,000 people to more than 60,000
From 50 balloons the first year to 80
From prizes for free dinners to this year’s piece de
resistance, a car or a truck
From mostly volunteers to a paid staff of more than 200
— plus hundreds more volunteers
a year-round, ongoing commitment. And a tremendous success.
As president of Up, Up, and Away In Hunterdon Inc., Castner, 50, is
owner and event director of the Magic of Alexandria Balloon Festival.
Her career has included teaching and coaching at Bryn Mawr College,
affiliation with Johnson & Johnson Health Management as a fitness
product manager, and her own business, Castner Fitness Associates.
She brings to the festival her belief in physical activity, her
to education, and managerial skills that, if redirected, could turn
around a state agency or two. Happily she has chosen to channel her
abilities into the Magic of Alexandria.
Since hot air balloons invite pictures, picture this: sunset on a
perfect summer day in New Jersey’s green rolling countryside.
beautifully, 80 hot air balloons ascend, to go wherever the wind goes,
for at least an hour. Most are the now-classic, multi-colored
of the first hot-air-borne balloon that rose in France 215 years ago;
some are shaped like flowers, the sun, a snowman.
For that first French flight, there were no passengers. The brothers
Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier stayed on the ground and sent the
up. (Later, shades of NASA, they gave a free, although involuntary
ride to a few animals, and finally people gave it a try. France
airmail via hot air balloon.) These days, balloon festivals are all
about people, thousands of them, together with related earth and sky
activities like music, crafts, air shows, sky-diving, and prizes.
That’s where Linda Castner comes in, or rather, stays in — with
her husband, Lee (familiarly known as "Corky"), who co-manages
the airport with her — to make sure all these thing happen, and
happen right, and happen even better than the last time. As usual,
it takes hard work to make magic.
Alexandria Field Airport, west of Clinton in Pittstown, Hunterdon
County, is a family-owned facility founded in 1944 by Castner’s
William and Leah Fritsche. He was a flight instructor during World
War II; she, still active in the business at 81, helps with posters,
phones, and lesson-scheduling before the festival. All four Fritsche
children learned to fly, and one of Castner’s brothers, Will, is a
commercial airplane captain who teaches flying at Alexandria between
airline trips. Linda soloed at 16 and earned her pilot’s license in
her early 20s; she even married at the airport in a ceremony that
placed her bridesmaids, in traditional floral dresses, in front of
airplanes. Now, while she still flies occasionally, she seems to
piloting ground-level events.
The airport is surrounded by farmland, with mountains
visible in the distance. So bucolic is the setting that arriving
visitors often ask, "What park is this?" Castner thinks that’s
just wonderful. "When my husband hears that, his face goes from
ear to ear in smiles," she says, for he’s the one who mows the
hay fields every day (for that park-like look), besides putting up
fences, running electric wires, and building stages.
Other balloon festival sites have "lots of concrete and no shade
or trees," she says. "When you come here, you don’t see
higher, and the sun sets behind that ridge as the balloons go up."
It’s all part of the uniqueness of the Alexandria Balloon Festival
— truly a family-oriented event in offerings, prices ($12 adults;
$3 children), and overall atmosphere.
One of those "other festivals," the Quick Chek New Jersey
Festival of Ballooning, another major regional attraction, takes place
at Solberg Airport, Readington, from this Friday through Sunday, July
24 through 26. True this festival is bigger, with 125 balloons
Yet this is a more corporate venture with more cost to families.
at the gate is $20 for adults and $10 children.
For most of the year at Alexandria Field, typical (if not wildly
airport activities occur — flight lessons, sky diving, aircraft
rental, and sales. But that’s not enough, Castner says. With one New
Jersey airport closing every year of the past 50, it’s necessary to
do more. So Alexandria Field Airport has adopted an Airpark concept,
through which families with their own planes live at the airport in
homes that include hangers. Further airpark development is planned,
as are airport enhancements.
Ten years ago, the airport became the site of a balloon festival —
its first — as the state’s original festival split in half and
a new venue was needed. The following year, Castner agreed to manage
the event, and it has steadily grown and improved ever since. After
a few years, running the festival was such an encompassing job that
Castner phased out her wellness company, and moved full-time into
managing the airport and the balloon festival. She had found her (very
By now, she admits to being comfortably in charge and in the know
about the panoply of possibilities from which to choose entertainers,
balloon operations, and vendors of all kinds. Her conspicuous
have included last year’s Stealth fighter fly-bys and successfully
going through all the hoops to get Disney’s Micky Mouse character
to visit. (Until last year there was also a Micky Mouse-shaped
which has since retired.)
During the Magic of Alexandria Balloon Festival, and in fact for a
few weeks before it, the airport is a different world. Earlier this
month, before the arrival of 80 balloons and thousands of onlookers,
Castner — trim, animated and in-charge — gave several visitors
the grand tour. Within sight of the handsome, black-topped main
cutting through green fields, a new stage — the event’s third
— was under construction. Another stage was being reconfigured.
During festival week, tents will go up and the beer garden will be
Castner divides the goings-on into three parts: One-third of what
happens comes with the price of admission ($10 advance; $12 at the
gate): continuous entertainment, including air show, music, fireworks.
The second third covers whatever people may opt to buy, such as food,
balloon rides, and crafts. Also free, the last third, which Castner
calls "interactive adventure stuff," allows her to realize
what she calls describes as a serious goal of the festival:
won’t ever have to say, `My God, I lost my whole month’s salary on
This "tricky" third is "subtly" educational, she says.
Without lectures or other boredom-inducers, Castner’s festival
provide product information through displays, demonstrations, and
free activities. For instance, wanting to bring its own credo to life,
Johnson & Johnson sponsors what is now the most successful tent on
the field. It features a "Children’s Growing-Up Garden,"
a stage with storyteller and singer, participation by 10 area
organizations, and stations for parental breast-feeding and
Home Depot sponsors a big balloon and reps from Black and Decker who
teach people about tools. Last year, for instance, visitors learned
to make CD racks — then kept them, free. This year, techniques
for painting and wallpapering share the bill with construction of
kitchen cabinets that will be auctioned off. The Aerostar booth shows
visitors how balloons work, and lets them see an "envelope"
and basket up close. Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger balloon comes to
together with a "huge" chase car that commands attention.
Master Choice brings festival visitors a magician or illusionist every
hour. (Last year, Castner says, they made an airplane disappear. While
admitting that was a tough trick, she offered no hints as to how it
was done.) Free "tether rides," with the balloon attached
to a 100-foot rope, are a big draw here. Castner says most other
festivals charge for tether rides. However, just as she does her best
to assure reasonable food prices, she understands that people may
want to try a balloon ride without paying the $175 price for an hour
For those who know only that they like ballooning, but not necessarily
why, balloons work on this principle: The heated air inside the
is lighter than the air outside, causing the balloon to go up. During
a balloon flight, heated air is pumped from a propane tank into the
envelope to keep the balloon afloat. Except when this happens, a
ride is usually a noiseless, scenic way to travel, high above the
Enlisting "marketing sponsors" is a year-round effort, Castner
says. She started with one and has had as many as six, covering her
basic costs for insurance and advertising. As one small, but telling,
index of her practice of quality control, while some sponsors have
become regulars, some are also turned away. "We tell them we’re
not the event for you," Castner says. In the same vein, not all
balloon operations become part of the Magic of Alexandria. From about
100 pilots invited, 80 are selected; they in turn bring their own
balloons and ground crews. Castner is interested in the overall
mix, of course, but she also wants to assure involvement by the teams
most likely to adhere to the rules of the air. After all, she says,
"It’s a reflection on your family, your community."
And she is acutely aware of her community. Partly from consideration
for area residents — aware that balloons may come down in
back yard or crop field — she stages just one mass balloon ascent
each day of the festival, even though other festivals may launch both
morning and evening. And she reminds her neighbors that although there
will be much more traffic than usual, a major party component is right
in their back yard. She gives away about 2,000 tickets each year.
The beneficiaries of the festival events are still another big story,
ranging one year from high school cheerleaders who parked cars to
raise money, to this year’s plan to donate parking donations to the
Spina Bifida Association of New Jersey. The Alexandria Educational
Foundation will profit from program sales.
Among the crucial ingredients of the festival, count human resources
— and how Castner builds a winning team. To start with, she hires
(are you ready for this?) a "balloonmeister." Here again,
Castner is savvy. She switches balloonmeisters every three years to
avoid development of balloonist-cliques that could decide to be
in a festival, or not, because of who serves in that role. This year
veteran balloonmeister Bill Hughes brings to Alexandria a notable
aviation background and years of balloon experience. He will assume
responsibility for the numerous balloon-specific elements, including
pilot certifications, random "ramp checks" (for holes in the
envelope) before flights, and assuring that everyone involved is
of rules and regulations.
A prerequisite for every balloon ascent is a pilot in command (PIC).
Considering weather, winds, and the balloon itself, this crucial
decides whether it is safe to take off, then, once aloft, he or she
watches out for trees, power lines, mountains, continuing good
As with airline pilots, Castner says, the PIC can decide to bag a
flight on the runway. However, most likely the balloon will fly, and
in that case, the pilot travels with a map showing the area three,
four, and five miles around the airport.
Completing the balloon’s operational staff, those in
the chase car keep in touch with the pilot and try to anticipate where
the balloon may come down. Then, the practice is to ask the property
owner’s permission to land and proffer a bottle of bubbly. Invariably,
the answer is yes. "In fact," Castner says, "people on
the ground often wave and call out invitations to land on their
The aerial map is another small, but telling, part of festival
Throughout the weekend, Castner and an aide keep checking on the
of air and ground events. With a separate radio frequency for air
show, sky dive, and ground, Castner says, "I’m running the air
show and all the stage entertainment, and it’s done in 30-minute
My shadow handles the ground." Each festival night ends with a
thorough debriefing meeting, to head off glitches the following day.
Everyone at Alexandria, from parking attendants through managers
for various functions, is trained. "We used to train only the
managers," Castner says. "That wasn’t enough. Now, as a
we constantly get compliments for how polite everyone is, how crisp
and nice they look."
The payoff for all this? No accidents, no landowner complaints. And
no lack of recognition for excellence. Just a few for-instances:
of the 1993 New Jersey Governor’s Award for Best Event and the state’s
Business Development Award the same year; winner of the Hunterdon
County Chamber of Commerce 1994 Entrepreneur of the Year Award; ranked
No. 6 among the nation’s top 250 events by Events Business News
Castner’s family and fun-oriented programming of the three days is
one giant step toward customer satisfaction. Aware that some visitors
come from out of state and where weather could be dramatically
she sets up a phone bank to handle questions about weather,
any other festival issues. If balloon rides are rained-out, ticket
holders get a rain check for later in the weekend. Even though all
publications carry the warning, "Subject to weather and
people don’t always understand why the balloons or the airplane can’t
go up — or why the skydivers can’t jump. "If it rains,"
Castner says, "all it does is test your personality." But
there’s more to it than that — there’s knowing what else to have
So, the field entertainment has grown to fill in for air delays or
cancellations. "We get compliments about balancing the field,
and that means my kid isn’t running around yelling, Give me a buck,
Give me another buck!" Castner says. Instead, that kid, with
might be climbing the rock wall or enjoying the zip line — two
corporate team-building activities with application for families too.
And fair weather or foul, Castner’s use of the sound system for music
and announcements keeps enthusiasm high and everything moving.
Since what goes up must come down, what happens the morning, or even
the week, after the balloon festival? That’s not for sleep-ins or
flights to Aruba — but for cleaning up, handling bills, and
getting back to business as usual. All that comes after the
festival evaluation, which is sometimes pleasant and sometimes not
so pleasant," Castner says. By then, plans for next year’s Magic
of Alexandria are already simmering.
— Pat Summers
Airport, Pittstown, 908-735-0870. Mass ascensions daily at 6 p.m.
Adults $12; children $3. Friday, August 7, to Sunday, August 9.
Airport, Readington, 800-HOT-AIR9. More than 125 balloons, July 24
through 26. One of the top festivals in the country, the website is
www.balloonfestival.com. Friday night rock concert features
the Marshall Tucker Band, followed by fireworks. At the gate: $20
adults; $10 children. Friday, July 24, to Sunday, July 26.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.