Visitors from near and far flock to Traverse City for wine tasting, dune climbing and water-based recreation, but aerial adventures await those who like high-flying fun.
Jeff Gilles, a hot air balloon pilot who has piloted 40,000 passengers across the globe, now whisks locals and vacationers off in a wicker basket and colorful balloon to sail the skies surrounding Grand Traverse Bay. Gilles eyed the region’s longtime ballooning business for years. He jumped at the chance to buy Grand Traverse Balloons in early 2018 — without ever having visited Traverse City — and rebranded to Traverse City Balloon Tours.
“I knew it was just a beautiful part of the United States and thought it would be a nice place to spend the summers,” he said.
Gilles offers sunrise or sunset flights, plus private trips, soaring over the region’s vineyards, bays and countryside. The excursion takes about three hours total, with an hour in flight, and includes free hotel pickup and return in Traverse City and Acme.
Besides the 360-degree aerial views, the experience of floating through the open air offers an element of excitement, adventure and surreal observation. It’s a memorable way to spend a morning or afternoon or celebrate a special event.
“As far as seeing the landscape, it’s a very stable platform; it’s been called the sensation of no sensation,” Gilles said. “People have said it’s like just staring out at a picture. It slowly goes by. You can’t tell you are moving. There is no feeling like it; it’s something you have to experience.”
Balloon tours can be booked May through late October, but trips are weather dependent. The wind has to be just right, preferably 5 to 10 knots, and the average flight reaches 2,000 to 3,000 feet with an occasional ascent to 6,000 feet or higher.
Gilles watches the weather, tests the winds and determines a launch location before the trip based on the wind’s speed and direction. He cannot guarantee the balloon’s exact path, but that is part of the fun.
“We try to fly over Traverse City and over the bay, but it may be as far south as Interlochen and Buckley and as far west as Empire,” he said. “In our area, we have a lot of water, so it’s always pretty no matter where you are.”
The sunset trip is an easier sell, but the balloon lands before the sun actually sets. For early risers, Gilles said a sunrise trip affords people the chance to actually watch the sunrise.
“It’s gorgeous,” he said. “It’s a great way to start the morning.” Passengers are treated to a post-landing champagne toast with Gilles, who also gives a short lesson on the history of ballooning.
Gilles’ parents turned him onto the hobby, which blossomed into a passion and a career. At 45, Gilles has piloted over 5,000 flights, including competitive events, corporate balloons and for tourism operators. His favorite is setting sail with people who want to enjoy a unique vacation experience, face down a fear, celebrate a special event or cross an item off their bucket list.
Ballooning has taken the Oklahoma native to 35 states and six different countries, including exotic locales like the Serengeti in Tanzania, rainforests in Costa Rica, rice paddies in Japan and the outback of Australia. In the offseason, Gilles and his wife Julie fly balloons in Arizona and elsewhere.
“It’s just a fun way to make a living and a fun way to see the world,” he said. “It’s a family passion. My family has been involved with it for so long, I can’t envision my life without it.” ≈
— Marla R. Miller, Michigan BLUE Magazine.
*Photography courtesy Southwest Michigan Tourist Council