In a balloon, it’s not where you end up but how you get there
It’s not about going fast.
The exhilaration comes not from rocketing toward earth being pulled by gravity, but rather from gently, oh, so gently, breaking free of it and floating into the clouds. Ballooning—even the name conjures comically bulbous bubbles bouncing off one another in the sky, punctuated by the occasional chuckling clown—might not be the most practical way to travel, but it is surely one of the most whimsical.
Floating against the horizon, balloons do sometimes get close enough to each other to touch. “We get basket-on-basket contact all the time,” says Up & Away pilot David Dunrud, adding, “It’s basket-on-balloon contact we don’t want.”
The first manned balloon ride took place more than 200 years ago in France, and, as a mode of air transport it’s about a century out of date. If you’ve ever seen a crew go through the laborious procedures of preparing for flight, it’s easy to see why: Hundreds of feet of specially coated fabric need to first be carefully unfurled in a large field where it won’t get too wet, scratched, poked or punctured, and the byzantine series of ropes that provide a lattice for the balloon and from which the basket will eventually hang must be equally carefully unraveled. A huge fan blows air inside the flat and deflated balloon and it begins to slowly take limp shape. Only after the double burner is lit, burning liquid propane to reach heats up to 15 million Btu, does it lift off the grass and inflate to its familiar shape.
Once fully inflated, the balloon and basket go buoyant, pulling up from the ground and in a controlled path to the clouds, riding an invisible elevator shaft. Once you have liftoff, you see what all that hard work was for.
It’s a change in perspective that is all the more unexpected for how quiet and still everything feels. The ground trails away below and you are left not quite with a bird’s eye view, but more that of a single feather following a gust.
Flight patterns and, to a degree, where a balloon can take off or land from is dictated by the winds. Usually the pilot will go straight up, sometimes as high as 5,000 feet, taking inventory of which way the wind blows at various altitudes to keep in mind for later.
The lift comes from, as the full name of the aircraft implies, hot air. Once the air trapped at the top of the balloon heats to about 130 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature, the balloon ascends, when it cools, it slowly drops. This simple fact of physics is one good reason why balloons often fly in the mornings, when air temperatures are cooler. That dome at the top of the balloon is “where all the heat and pressure is at,” says Dunrud, who at 26, has been piloting hot-air balloons for 11 years, a good 10 of them with Mike Kijak’s Windsor–based Up & Away.
Dunrud began flying with his aunt’s company in Napa as a boy, and caught the bug early on, but when her operation closed down he was left without an outlet. Sometimes, when a balloon needs to land, it needs to land. And that is what happened when an Up & Away balloon touched down one day nearly right in a then-12-year-old Dunrud’s backyard in a fenced area from which he noticed
immediately the team would have difficulty packing up. Dunrud, because he’d helped out with his aunt’s balloons, knew what to do. He hopped the fence and helped the crew break down. Shortly after he was introduced to Kijak and became a part of the team, first taking on ground crew duties until he had enough flight hours to get his pilot’s license.
Because landings and takeoffs are so dependent on weather conditions and can change with, well, the wind, the locations balloonists use are a network of handshake deals throughout Napa and Sonoma.
Teams in vans, known as “chasers” follow the balloons’ flight, staying in touch by radio, and racing to meet them wherever they land. With so few truly open spaces with access in the area, the pilot needs to make sure he has enough good options near his approximate destination. Skilled pilots, like Dunrud, drop up and down in altitude, riding those drifts filed away in their brains from the original ascent, and navigate toward, at times, elusive landing spots.
An hour of air time one day might take a balloon across the county, another day it might not travel more than a couple of miles. A balloon may seem to hang in midair nearly motionless at times, a thousand feet above vineyards and mountains, and other times it may race along the surface, kissing treetops and coming within a few feet of vines in a technique called contouring. Speeds of 40 knots per hour or more may be reached, but 3 or 4 are far more typical. “Every day is different,” says Up & Away crew member Steve Lowry. The sentiment that the journey is more important than the destination seldom rings truer.
To fly with Up & Away Ballooning call 707-836-0171 or go to up-away.com.
From the 2012 Winter issue of SONOMA