Floating Above Vineyards
Travel to wine country often affords photo opportunities. Whether it is the green of vineyards contrasted with the yellow and browns of Colorado's Bookcliffs or the blues of Lake Michigan, vineyards are a photographer's dream. On a recent trek to California's Temecula wine region, a hot air balloon flight over vineyards was a wonderful experience.
Early Opportunities to Fly
It has been years since my last hot air balloon flight. For three years I had the opportunity to crew on a hot air balloon team. The owner, who was a Captain in the Army Reserve, named his balloon "Enterprise." His name was Kirk, so I crewed for Captain Kirk and his hot air balloon, Enterprise. When crewing one is restricted to roads. The balloon doesn't have that restriction and can fly where the air currents take it. The crew has to read maps and direct the driver of the chase vehicle to roads that will take it in approximately the same direction as the balloon. One gets good at reading maps. Captain Kirk paid his crew by taking them on flights. Over the three years of crewing, I flew several times. The chance to fly again, this time over Temecula was met with great anticipation.
Determining the Launch Site
Cameras in hand, we made our way to the launch meeting site at the early hour of 5:45 am. Winds are generally calmer during the early morning hours. However at 5:45 am there were unusual winds with a few weather challenges threatening a possible launch of the balloon. Five couples arrived for the flight. We climbed into a passenger van to check launch sites. Our pilot, Ferrel Gray of California Dreamin’, filled a black balloon with gas and launched the balloon. Observing the flight of the balloon will aid in determining the wind conditions. The first potential launch site was ruled out. So was the second and third. By now the group had been chauffeured to several places heading in an easterly direction. Some of the passengers became apprehensive about whether the flight would happen. Ferrel pointed out, "It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground." During that time weather conditions had changed. The fourth potential site was the charm. Conditions had improved for a launch of the balloon. Another ballooning company had set up next to our site and began the pre-flight tasks.
Our balloon was stretched out and the crew held the opening up while fans blew air into the vast cavern of the balloon. After the cavity was enlarged with air, Ferrel fired the engines creating a blast of fire and heat warming the air inside the balloon. The balloon began to rise into a vertical position. Passengers then climbed into the basket. Our basket easily held ten people and the pilot.
Launch was very smooth as the balloon slowly rises in the air. Motion is natural following the winds and the sense of movement is canceled by this natural flow with the wind. If one were to close one's eyes they would not know that they have risen to several hundred feet. An occasional blast of the engine allows the balloon to remain at its present altitude or rise. Releasing some of the air causes the balloon to descend.
We flew over the hilly landscape noting several citrus orchards. The balloon flew in a westward direction passing over farms, orchards, housing communities and eventually vineyards. For most of the flight we could see the other hot air balloon rising and descending as it flew in a similar direction. The passengers were clicking cameras and taking video. Cell phone reception worked for one passenger who received a call from her mother. It was peaceful in the basket. Only the occasional firing of the engines broke the silence. About a half hour into the flight, we spotted the chase car that kept in constant communication. Ferrel taught the passengers the position he wanted us in for landing as well as giving the command to remain in the basket until told to get out. He eventually spotted a potential landing site. With excellent eyesight, Ferrel watched one of the crew on the ground pick up a hand full of dirt and drop it. Ferrel knew winds at the surface were in a reverse direction of our current flight. Making compensations for the wind, Ferrell set the basket down with only a slight bump. The crew came over to the basket and guided it to an area where they would deflate the balloon. We waited in the basket until we were told to climb out.
Wine and Ballooning
According to tradition, there is a close connection between hot air ballooning and wine. Hot air ballooning as well as great wines had their starts in France. Early French balloonists had a few problems with local French peasants who would attack the landed balloon with pitchforks. They believed the balloon to be an evil fire-breathing monster. The balloonists countered with Champagne. When landing on someone's property, they would give glasses of Champagne to the people. That way the peasants would know that the balloonist wasn't evil, but French. The gift of Champagne has been followed through the ages. Many balloonists today will give a bottle of the sparkling wine to land owners as a way to continue tradition and say "thank you" for landing on their property.
Sparkling wine and orange juice were awaiting the passengers on the return to the California Dreamin’ site. We had mimosas and a light breakfast including a special fruit pastry, fruit, bread and cheese. It was a relaxing time and a wonderful ending to a special flight.
Some people add a hot air balloon flight to their bucket list. Others add it to birthday, anniversary and wedding gift lists. One doesn’t need a special occasion to go on a hot air balloon flight though. It is an experience that one will cherish for a lifetime.