Family-Owned Airport

Balloon Festival Events

Charity Beneficiaries

The Week After

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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

festival

at her family’s airport 10 years ago. Since then she has focused her

considerable talents on building a better mousetrap so well that

festival

planning is now a year-round activity, or as Castner puts it,

"There’s

no between anymore."

This year’s Magic of Alexandria festival, set for Friday through

Sunday,

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

It began as a part-time, give-it-a-try kind of thing; now it’s

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

commitment

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.

Silently,

beautifully, 80 hot air balloons ascend, to go wherever the wind goes,

for at least an hour. Most are the now-classic, multi-colored

iterations

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

balloon

up. (Later, shades of NASA, they gave a free, although involuntary

ride to a few animals, and finally people gave it a try. France

pioneered

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.

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Family-Owned Airport

Alexandria Field Airport, west of Clinton in Pittstown, Hunterdon

County, is a family-owned facility founded in 1944 by Castner’s

parents,

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

prefer

piloting ground-level events.

The airport is surrounded by farmland, with mountains

visible in the distance. So bucolic is the setting that arriving

festival

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

anything

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

promised.

Yet this is a more corporate venture with more cost to families.

Admission

at the gate is $20 for adults and $10 children.

For most of the year at Alexandria Field, typical (if not wildly

profitable)

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

large) niche.

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

successes

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

balloon,

which has since retired.)

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Balloon Festival Events

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

runway,

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

fenced in.

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:

"People

won’t ever have to say, `My God, I lost my whole month’s salary on

this [festival]’"

This "tricky" third is "subtly" educational, she says.

Without lectures or other boredom-inducers, Castner’s festival

sponsors

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,"

including

a stage with storyteller and singer, participation by 10 area

non-profit

organizations, and stations for parental breast-feeding and

diaper-changing.

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

Alexandria,

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

balloon

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

or more.

For those who know only that they like ballooning, but not necessarily

why, balloons work on this principle: The heated air inside the

envelope

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

balloon

ride is usually a noiseless, scenic way to travel, high above the

madding crowd.

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

balloon

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

someone’s

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.

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Charity Beneficiaries

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

involved

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

respectful

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

person

decides whether it is safe to take off, then, once aloft, he or she

watches out for trees, power lines, mountains, continuing good

weather.

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

place."

The aerial map is another small, but telling, part of festival

preparation.

Throughout the weekend, Castner and an aide keep checking on the

status

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

blocks.

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

responsible

for various functions, is trained. "We used to train only the

managers," Castner says. "That wasn’t enough. Now, as a

result,

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:

winner

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

Magazine

in 1997.

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

different,

she sets up a phone bank to handle questions about weather,

directions,

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

schedule,"

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

available.

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

family,

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.

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The Week After

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

generally

getting back to business as usual. All that comes after the

"serious

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

Magic of Alexandria Balloon Festival, Alexandria Field

Airport, Pittstown, 908-735-0870. Mass ascensions daily at 6 p.m.

Adults $12; children $3. Friday, August 7, to Sunday, August 9.

Quick Chek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning, Solberg

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.


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