Sean Quigley enjoys the rare air

Written by Leo Roth, Staff writer for Democrat and Chronicle

Balloons Over Letchworth

After leaving the real estate business in the early 1990s, Sean Quigley's life took on a very different view. Try one from about 2,000 feet.

An avid balloonist, his recreation became his vocation. He began to earn a living doing something he loved.

"I pinch myself every day," Quigley said.

A lot of people who say that can be full of hot air.

In Quigley's case, it is his magnificent passenger balloons that are full of hot air as he takes customers on unforgettable rides over - and even into - "The Grand Canyon of the East" as owner of Balloons Over Letchworth. The famous company that operates out of Letchworth State Park will celebrate its 25th season in business and 19th under Quigley when rides start up in a few weeks.

People who meet Quigley often wonder why he even needs liquid propane to get his basket off the ground. His uplifting enthusiasm could do the trick.

"Flying a balloon was something I wanted to do since I was a little kid," said Quigley, 60, who grew up in Scottsville. "I read about them in Popular Mechanics. These (modern type) hot air balloons equipped with a heater that keeps you up there were only invented in 1960. I was just so intrigued."

Quigley was 27 when he took his first balloon ride and by 1987 he had earned his balloon pilot's license, or LTA (Lighter Than Air) classification issued by the FAA. Counting festivals and races across the United States and Europe, he has since logged more than 2,000 flights and given nearly 15,000 people a ride of their lives.

"Not too many pilots have more hours than me in the air," Quigley said. "Anytime the weather was good, I was in the air and I still feel like that only now it's for a living."

A very gratifying living thanks to a very unique product - a bird's eye view of Letchworth gorge and its waterfalls - one of New York's great natural wonders. Quigley is the only balloon operator with an agreement with the state to operate in the park. His balloons launch next to the Glen Iris Inn.

"It's a joy," Quigley said. "I've never had anyone get off the balloon and say, 'Well that stunk.' Everyone is happy. What business can you have where everyone is happy? A lot of folks are nervous at first but when it's done, they're saying, 'Let's do that again.' "

Of course, someone doesn't fly as often as Quigley has and not experienced a hair-raising moment or two. There have been times when he has lost sight of the ground due to fog and one time in Sunday River, Maine, he had to land on a frozen lake. But Quigley's safety record is perfect. He has canceled many a flight when he felt the weather unsafe.

"We do this for fun so I tell people all the time, 'Hey, my butt's up there too,' " he said.

Helping Quigley get his business off the ground and stay there is his equally adventuresome wife, Denise. Two other pilots also fly the company's 10- and six-person balloons, brother-in-law David Zillioux and Keshequa's Kevin Raymond. And don't forget the hard-working chase crew, which follows the balloons and packs them up wherever it is they touch down.

Balloons can be piloted forward by changing their vertical positioning through the release of hot air through flaps and riding the desired wind. But balloon pilots are at the mercy of the wind and no two flights are alike.

"You can't guarantee where they go," Quigley said. "There's no steering wheel in a balloon."

That just adds to the mystique of one of man's earliest forms of aviation. Some of Quigley's experiences floating free would perk the ears of Richard Branson.

In 1989, he placed sixth out of 38 countries represented in a World Cup balloon race in Belfort, France, and in 2004 he took part in a weeklong festival in the Swiss Alps at Chateau d'Oex. He once traveled 114 miles in 2 1/2 hours to place ninth in a U.S. long distance competition and on several occasions Quigley has piloted his balloon over the brim of Niagara Falls.

Those trips took an immense amount of paperwork and preparation but passing through the mist of the Horseshoe Falls was worth it.

"Pretty cool," Quigley said. "The scary part was looking down and thinking, 'This is the power line capital of the world.' "

As a new flying season nears, Quigley is still on Cloud Nine from his most recent European vacation.

At the invitation of a friend whom he has hosted for trips over Letchworth, Switzerland's Jakob Burkard, Quigley and three other professional pilots flew over the Wilder Kaiser ("Wild Emperor'') Range of mountains in Austria in January as part of a big balloon festival. Part of the Tyrol Region of ski resorts in the Alps, it includes the Olympic city of Innsbruck.

Alpine ballooning is not for amateurs. Some trips require oxygen and at these heights, an understanding of wind forces. Balloons must clear the mountain peaks by 1,000 feet to avoid severe downdrafts and the possibility of being slammed into the jagged cliffs. Weather conditions must be perfect and after several days of heavy snow, Quigley and his party were able to experience two five-hour journeys of a lifetime.

"The trip to Chateux d'Oex (2004) was nice, don't get me wrong," he said. "I could see the Matterhorn from the air. But we also had to stay in the valleys and didn't have the opportunity that time to actually fly over the mountains. In Austria, we had the chance to fly over the mountains at 13,000 feet and it was just incredible. It was the nicest thing I've done in ballooning and I've done an awful lot of nice things."

What's left on Quigley's ballooning bucket list? He'd like fly over the English Channel and then conquer Lake Ontario.

Mostly, though, he's content with a daily affirmation of what he was meant to do each time he pulls into Letchworth Park and begins inflating those colorful balloons. When that young boy who became intrigued by flight reading Popular Mechanics comes alive.

When the wind is right, Quigley can touch his basket into the Genesee River for a "splash and dash." And each trip ends with a champagne toast.

"I pull into the park and get a smile on my face every time," Quigley said.

He's not blowing hot air. He's floating on it.