One recent Friday afternoon we began a great adventure. We searched the Internet for “wine country ballooning,” and came up with the name of a company in the California Wine Country. Just after lunch, we departed San Francisco and arrived at our destination a pleasant four hour drive later. After checking into our hotel, we called our chosen carrier to get details on where and when to meet for our first hot air balloon ride in the sunny wine country.
The next morning at 6 a.m., our FAA “licensed commercial balloon pilot” (really, that is his rating) met us at the designated location on the outskirts of town. His white van was pulling a brightly colored trailer that housed one gigantic balloon, and one large woven basket, -and all the sundry equipment necessary to get us into the wide blue yonder.
Our pilot’s name was Vance and he immediately won us over with his enthusiasm and animated description of the morning’s event. He also introduced us to the two other couples booked on the same flight.
Gathering the group into a semi-circle, Captain Vance began his pre-flight briefing: “First, we will all board the company van, and drive until we find a suitable launch site. Sometimes it is possible to launch right from where we are standing, but not today.”
A balloon pilot must select a launch site that will allow him/her to guide the balloon in the general direction of a good landing zone. However, the landing site may change several times during flight to accommodate shifts in the prevailing breeze.
Within a few minutes of our orientation, we were bouncing along in the van, balloon in tow, looking for a launch site. Our pilot/driver stopped on three occasions before selecting just the right spot, -which turned out to be a large pasture.
We all jumped from the van, and the ground crew immediately began to unload the trailer. First, out came the balloon, which the ground assistants gently unfolded onto a tarp.
The assistants then pulled the woven gondola from the trailer and placed it into position just below the open end of the deflated balloon. Next, the process of sorting ropes began. It ended with the basket secured to the bottom of the balloon by a series of ropes and metal clips.
The crew then held the bottom of the horizontal nylon balloon open while it was inflated by hot air from a gas canister similar to the one you use in your back-yard barbecue, -except much larger.
Within minutes, the big colorful bag was inflated and the basket that had been lying on its side during the inflation process had righted itself. The ground assistants then held down the basket while the pilot boarded the passengers. Hot air balloon baskets come in different sizes, -ours was sufficient to carry six passengers and the pilot.
Everyone, including the pilot, remains standing during the typical 40-60 minute balloon flight. The pilot’s position is alongside the gas canister that infuses sporadic rushes of hot air into the colorful gentle giant to make it rise. When the hot air blasts are cut back, the balloon begins to descend.
Ballooning is all about the ability of the pilot to find the right air currents at different altitudes in order to guide the balloon towards the planned destination.
Our lift off was a thing of beauty. We slowly rose up into the clear, crisp morning sky like a feather rising on a gentle breeze. What a sensation-and what a view.
Meanwhile, back on the ground, two assistants were following the balloon’s passage from the van. Our pilot frequently advised the ground crew via a two-way radio of our flight progress and changes to where he planned to put the balloon down. We could see the van moving slowly below us, always guided by directions from the “flight deck” above.
About 45 minutes into our flight, Captain Vance decided where he would land and instructed the ground crew accordingly. Our air ship descended with the same grace with which it had ascended and our touchdown was spot-on perfect.
After the landing, the pilot and his ground crew quickly disembarked the passengers, and deflated the balloon. At that time, all the flyers were treated to a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate the success of the flight. Our commemoration was immediately followed by a delightful continental breakfast.
It’s easy to arrange a hot air balloon ride in the California Wine Country, and it’s an outing that the whole family will enjoy.