by Sarah Amador
We’ve all seen them—those enormous colorful bubbles floating over Sonoma and Napa. If you’re like me, you’ve thought, what would it be like to float like that? What would it be like to be a bubble, just part of the air mass?
Last week I got to find out. My husband and I booked a flight with Up and Away Ballooning, and had the time of our life. What is it like? Imagine resting in your hammock, but up at 1,200 feet. Imagine floating underwater, remember that feeling of weightlessness, now take away the water, and put yourself way high up.
My husband and I left in the dark in order to meet our pilot and fellow adventurers at 5:30 a.m. in Healdsburg. For hot air ballooning, flights are scheduled early in order to cut down on wind. When the sun heats the ground, it creates wind. Hot air balloon pilots don’t like to take off in wind because it can create dangerous situations, such as the basket being dragged too quickly when trying to take off. We walked inside Healdsburg Shed Café and were welcomed by our pilot, Armand Oconnor. There was also delicious banana bread and coffee waiting. We chatted with our other adventurers; we were all very excited. We were about to take part in the oldest form of human flight! No one was taking motion sickness pills, since people don’t get airsick on hot air balloon flights. Passengers experience no sense of motion because the balloon moves at the same speed and direction as the wind,
“You’re part of the air mass,” our pilot Oconnor said. “You feel nothing except when you land.”
Oconnor experienced his first hot air balloon ride just seven years ago. He was hooked and went on to obtain his pilot’s license. After 1,000 hours piloting hot air balloons, he is expert in his field.
Soon it was time to go, and we climbed into the company’s van. Our destination was Sonoma County Airport. We arrived at sunrise. A crew was already there, setting up our basket. Sectioned in five compartments, the basket (or gondola) can take up to 16 passengers; there were 12 of us that day. The basket is made of rattan, reinforced with a huge cable weaved throughout it. The average hot air balloon has the ability to lift about 1,400 pounds, depending on the outside air temperature. The cooler it is outside, the more the balloon will lift. The heated air inside makes the envelope buoyant since it has a lower density than the cold air outside.
The crew released helium balloons to ascertain the wind direction and speed. We watched the two small balloons float up, up and away, and then disappear. The crew decided that the conditions were still good, and they continued flight preparations. Today we would be using 40 gallons of propane. We would be firing 45 million BTU’s (units of energy). We’ve come a long way from how the first flight was conducted in 1783. On that historic date in France, the Montgolfier brothers filled their basket with damp straw and manure, shredded wool, old shoes and spoiled meat. Then they set it on fire, doused the balloon with water so it wouldn’t catch fire, and watched it take off. Apparently, the soot also helped the fabric of the balloon hold in heat.
While we waited on the airstrip, the crew unfurled the balloon from the back of a moving truck. Next, three giant fans were brought out. It was time to inflate the balloon, or “envelope.” The average hot air balloon is 80 feet tall and at the widest point, 50 feet in diameter. It was spectacular to watch the enormous balloon fill with air and rise. Flames of propane were fired, and the balloon rose even more, until it was about eight stories tall.
Now the balloon was ready. Oconnor called us over, and we all quickly climbed in. Once we were inside the gondola and holding onto the hand grips, Oconnor gave a few blasts of flame into the center of the balloon, and the entire gondola gently lifted off the ground. And that was it. We began moving gently along the airfield, lifting higher and higher.
“I can’t steer, but I can orient. I can change altitude,” Oconnor said, pulling on lines connected to valves in the balloon, opening and closing them in order to release hot air.
This helped him utilize the varying directions of wind. The average balloon flight covers about two miles distance at about five miles per hour. We floated above homes, vineyards and countryside. We rose to a total height of 1,200 feet. (The world record for altitude in a hot air balloon is 64,997 feet.)
That morning I saw Sonoma Valley as I’ve never seen it before. The valley floor spread out beneath us, the surrounding hills studded with trees and vineyards. Soon we saw the blue sparkling waters of Riverfront Regional Park. We saw a hawk, a couple of rabbits and a large buck. We watched our balloon shadow make its way across the golden fields. It was a good day to be in a balloon.
When it came time to land, I was grateful I did not live in a time when farmers rushed out with pitchforks and attacked the balloons. (This used to happen, as farmers thought the balloons were demonic!) Oconnor landed our balloon expertly although there was already seven miles per hour of wind. The balloon made contact with the earth with a bump. Then it was time to quickly climb out, before the wind moved the balloon again.
Afterwards, we were driven back to the Shed. There we toasted to a successful journey with mimosas and champagne. (This tradition was first made in France in order to appease farmers who didn’t like balloons setting down on their land and crushing crops.) Then we feasted on fresh farm to table vegetable frittatas, small potatoes, sausage and bacon, yogurt with granola, and some of the tastiest strawberries I have ever had. The strawberries came from the Shed’s farm.
It was a wonderful way to end a flight of a lifetime. To book your adventure in the sky, visit up-away.com or call (707) 836-0171 for Up & Away Ballooning. Another great company for hot air ballooning is Calistoga Balloons. You can contact them at https://www.calistogaballoons.com or call (707) 942-5758.