By Ebony Chappel
This spring, visitors of the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park will have an opportunity to fly back in time. No, Conner Prairie’s newly improved balloon isn’t Marty McFly’s Delorean or Bill and Ted’s telephone booth time machine, but it is still super cool.
The 1859 Balloon Voyage, which began in 2009, has taken over 91,000 riders 377 feet in the air. The 140-foot helium-filled balloon, was created by Aerophile, a French company and cost $530,000 to create. Construction to create the new exhibit which accompanies the flight is estimated at $165,000. Reynolds Farm Equipment, a family-owned Hamilton county business, has pledged $75,000 annually for five years to be named the attraction’s presenting sponsor.
“This year we have replaced the envelope on the balloon and are reintroducing the exhibit to the public,” said director of exhibits Brian Mancuso. “It’s a great experience, you can see downtown Indy on a really clear day. If you’ve gone to Prairie Town and been to Conner Prairie, it’s a neat thing to see it all laid out beneath you. It’s a really fun flight; it’s not scary at all.”
The balloon voyage allows people to go back to Lafayette, Indiana in August of 1859 to re-experience the first ever recorded air mail flight in U.S. history with an adventurous gentleman by the name of John Wise; a renowned balloonist and pilot played by one of the actors employed at the living history museum. Wise, who hoped to fly his balloon Jupiter to “a great river of air which always blows from west to east,” known today as the jet stream, and deliver 123 letters to New York City, was derailed due to weather conditions and eventually landed due south in Crawfordsville.
Participants experience a detailed account of that day by first visiting a recently remodeled replica of Lafayette’s town square where a post office, general store, and photography studio are located. Here they learn about postal technology, and are also able to take photographs inside a balloon basket while donning fashions from the late 1800’s.
Visitors also learn about the scientific impact of Wise’s flight as they are led through experiments with lifting gases, and invited to step on a scale that measures how many party balloons it would take to lift them into the air. “It’s a really great flight and its very freeing to be up there,” said Mancuso. “Being able to tie that back to a historical event is really fun.
We’re really giving people the sense of why this was an important fascinating piece of Indiana history.” Conner Prairie’s 1859 Balloon Voyage opens March 26. The flight experience is open to museum visitors during regular business hours, weather permitting. The cost for Conner Prairie members is $12 and $15 for non-members in addition to museum admission. For more information, visit connerprairie.org.