Napa Valley by balloon.
As I mentioned in a recent blog post about Thursday’s helicopter flight through Napa Valley, I’d been invited to take a spot on a hot air balloon flight with Napa Valley Balloons, Inc. on Friday morning out of Yountville (just north of Napa). I actually did the flight on Friday as planned. Well, sort of.
I was invited to fly by Bob, the pilot I’d met a few weeks before at the airport where I’m currently living in the Sacramento area. Bob had landed with his passengers in what I consider my “backyard” here — the ramp I can see from the back window of my RV. I’d taken some photos of his landing and had sent the best one to him. He said he’d try to get me on a future flight; I told him I’d take him and two friends up in my helicopter. After too many windy days, the weather had finally calmed down and I was scheduled for the first flight with an opening: Friday, March 21.
I got my confirmation with instructions via email. All passengers were supposed to meet at Domaine Chandon in Yountville at 6:30 AM. Google Maps told me that was about an hour away. And because I don’t like to be late to anything, I gave it an extra half hour of drive time. That meant leaving at 5 AM.
I’m an early riser and didn’t have any trouble making that departure time. With my first cup of coffee in a travel mug, I put Penny and her breakfast into the truck and we headed out.
I’d just passed the exit for Winters when my cell phone rang. It was Bob. “Don’t leave yet,” he told me. “I think there’s fog in the valley. We might depart from Winters instead.”
“I just passed Winters,” I told him.
“Wow. You’re running early. Why don’t you hang out there and I’ll let you know when I have a better handle on the weather.”
We hung up and I gave it some thought. It was dark out, but I could clearly see the moon and stars. No fog here. But also no place to just “hang out.” I kept driving, thinking of maybe pulling over in Vacaville, which was coming up. I could see the rotating beacon of the airport there, Nut Tree. Maybe I could find a coffee shop close to the freeway to wait at?
But then I started thinking about how long it would take me to continue the drive if Bob gave me the green light to keep coming. I didn’t want to be the last one to arrive. And I was hoping to see them inflate the balloons. I’d keep going and, if I had to drive back to Winters, I’d do it with them.
So I kept going.
I was just entering Napa when I started seeing the low clouds of a marine layer creeping into the valley. Still clear overhead. I called Bob.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “It’s a tough call. The crew and passengers are still meeting at Chandon.”
“I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” I told him. “No bother if I have to drive back. I don’t want to hold anyone up.”
We hung up again.
I pulled into the Chandon driveway at 6 AM and followed the signs to the parking area. I took Penny for a quick walk before following more signs to the reception area. I’d been to Domaine Chandon years before — probably on my very first trip to Napa Valley with my future wasband. My memory of the place did not match the grand establishment I was at that morning. Gardens, ponds, fountains, patios, catering rooms. The place was huge and, even in the dark, impressive. I looked forward to seeing it in the daylight.
I was the first passenger to arrive. I signed in and signed a waiver, grabbed a cup of coffee and a tiny croissant, and then chatted with the two receptionist and the pilots as they arrived. Bob was no where in sight, probably still trying to figure out whether it would be clear enough to fly.
The answer came with a phone call to one of the pilots who then began briefing the 40 or so passengers who had arrived. Safety first, legal matters second. Bob had determined that the flying conditions in Napa that morning were neither safe nor legal. We’d be departing from Winters, in the Sacramento Valley.
While the passenger briefing continued, I asked one of the pilots where they were departing from in Winters. He showed me on Google Maps on my phone. Bob’s crew and the other two crews were already enroute with plans to have the balloons fully inflated when the rest of the passengers arrived in the shuttle vans.
Apparently, I wouldn’t see Domaine Chandon in the daylight that day after all.
I got directions, told the pilot and crew in the reception area that I’d go on ahead, and left. Before I left, one of the receptionists gave me two Chandon bags. I could tell there was a bottle in one of them. Consolation prize for missing breakfast with the rest of the passengers. How nice!
It was a quick drive back. The fog was settling in and, although it was high still over the highway, I could see that Bob had made a good call. As the sun came up through the marine layer, it was pretty obvious that low clouds were filling in the valley.
There was a balloon company setting up beside the freeway at the Winters exit. I called Bob, thinking they might have relocated. He said that was their competition. Before he could give me directions, I told him I knew where to go. I hung up, followed Google’s guidance, and wound up in a field north of town where crews were spreading out three large balloons.
I’d been ballooning twice before. The first time was at a balloon festival in New Jersey, back in the 1990s, before I’d moved to Arizona. My future wasband had taken his niece and me for a flight. It was a great experience in what was probably considered a medium balloon. I don’t remember there being many people in our basket. I do remember being in a crowd of brightly colored balloons ascending into the sky over southwestern New Jersey farmland. I remember drifting silently on the breeze over people’s backyards while dogs barked. I remember seeing a woman in her bathrobe coming out to ge the morning newspaper. I remember grabbing the leaves off the top of a tree. And I remember the loud rush of gas and flames as the pilot added heat to the balloon envelope to keep us afloat.
The second time had been much more recently and I’d honestly almost forgotten it. It was back in January 2012 when I did a charter job that also involved a balloon. (Long story.) It was a tethered flight out in the desert west of where I lived in Arizona at the time. I blogged about it here.
This was different. This was real ballooning with a real commercial balloon company and pilot. The basket and balloon were huge; the basket could hold 17 people, including the pilot, and the balloon had to be large enough to lift that. The basket was carried to the site in a large truck with a hydraulic lift gate in the back. It took a lot of brute strength to get it down and into position on the ground beside the empty balloon.
I put Penny on her leash and wandered over with my camera to watch.
If you’ve never seen a hot air balloon inflated, here’s how it’s done. They start by spreading out the empty balloon envelope on the ground. They lay the basket on its side beside the bottom of the balloon and fasten the balloon to the basket with a series of ropes and carabiners. Then they put out one or two large fans that are fastened to generators, fire up the generators, and use the fans to start pushing air into the balloons. One or two members of the crew hold the balloon open at the bottom for the air to go in.
Meanwhile, crew members work in and around the balloon to make sure all the rigging is properly organized and there aren’t any tangles. I’m sure they do other stuff, too. It’s actually quite odd to see them walking around inside the balloon as it’s being inflated.
At a certain point, the balloon has enough air in it to begin holding its shape. But that air is the same temperature as the rest of the air. The balloon won’t fly. It’s time to add hot air. The pilot lights up the burners and adds fuel to shoot flames into the balloon. The fans and generators are shut off and moved away. As the hot air enters, the balloon starts to rise.
At some point, the balloon has enough lift to bring the basket to the upright position. That’s when it’s time to load up.
The passengers on our flight arrived during the inflation process. Most of them hung back, although a few came closer to take pictures. I snapped a photo of a couple for them. No one else seemed to want to get that close.
The basket had five compartments: one on each corner for passengers and one in the middle that ran from the front to the back of the basket for the pilot and the fuel canisters. Bob and the crew loaded us up with two couples in each compartment except mine; I shared with just two people. It was cosy but not crowded. A member of the ground crew took a photo of me just before we lifted off.
And then we were off the ground, drifting into the sky. Bob snapped a photo with a GoPro he had mounted off the balloon envelope.
The flight was wonderful. If you’ve never been in a hot air balloon and you can scrape together the cost of a flight, you really owe it to yourself to do it. It’s a completely novel experience, floating above the ground with this massive structure above your head keeping you aloft. There’s nothing like it.
We were the first ones from our group off the ground, so Bob did most of the navigating — which meant climbing and descending to test the direction of the wind at different altitudes. When he’d find an altitude that took us in the direction he wanted to go, he’d stick to that altitude. We buzzed along in what seemed like a gentle breeze, sometimes reaching in excess of 10 miles per hour. We moved mostly south down the valley with our companions behind us and the balloons from the other company mostly out to the east.
Navigation seems to be the big challenge — and fun — for a balloon pilot. Bob decided to do a “splash and dash” — that’s when the balloon touches down gently in a body of water and then takes off quickly again. He aimed us for Putah Creek, where it ponds up just upstream from a small dam. It was amazing to see him home in on the small pond with nothing to steer with except the wind. We cleared the trees on one side of the pond, descended quickly, and splash! Some water came into the bottom of the basket, soaking our shoes as we climbed out. I looked straight down into the pond and shot two photos of our reflection as we continued drifting south.
We continued drifting mostly south for a while. Meanwhile, the ground crew had packed up and were chasing us on the ground. One of the crew members was driving my truck with Penny inside. Bob talked on the radio occasionally, suggesting potential landing zones. We passed them one by one, occasionally seeing the ground crew below us, my truck easily recognizable by the big white fuel transfer tank on the back.
Eventually, the flight had to end. We’d flown south nearly to I-80. There were a number of office complexes down below us that had plenty of room for landing. We wound up coming in on the grounds of a college campus in a very gentle breeze — so gentle, in fact, that the basket didn’t even tip when landing. We touched down several times — each time, Bob would say, “We’re not done yet.” — before coming to a rest against a curb on an empty cul de sac. Bob began deflating the balloon as the crew came out to grab ropes. The balloon fell gently to the ground ahead of our flight path.
The passengers climbed out while the ground crew worked on getting the balloon and basket gathered up and loaded. Bob said goodbye and hurried off with half the passengers in one of the vans. They’d go back to Domaine Chandon for a champagne breakfast. I could have come along, but didn’t see any reason to be a burden. After all, I’d been a guest on the flight. Just experiencing that was enough for me.
I watched the ground crew work on the balloon for a while, then went back to the truck where Penny was waiting. I let her out for a little walk before we headed out. I stopped in Winters along the way and had a late breakfast at a sidewalk cafe.
I’d forgotten all about the two Chandon bags in the truck, but caught sight of them when I was getting out back at the airport where I’m living. I brought them inside and unwrapped a bottle of Chandon sparkling wine and a glass to toast with.
That champagne is chilling in the fridge right now.