Up up and away…

Birthdays are (most of the time) rather dull affairs. A cake, candles, a few cheers, and that’s it.
To celebrate my domestic partner’s red-letter day, I decided to take her for a ride… a hot-air balloon ride that is.
The first thing to remember about hot-air balloons is that (unlike bats) they take off shortly after sunrise, when there is a minimum of atmospheric turbulence.

For her birthday, I had told my mate to take the day off, without giving her any specific details about my intentions. I added a little later that on that day we would have to get up early.
How early, she asked?
5:00 a.m. I said. Holy mackerel, she exclaimed (I assume) in Russian.

Sunrise on Saturday October 26 was around 7:20 a.m. and I had been asked to report at the departing location at 6:30 a.m.
The distance from San Rafael to Yountville is about 40 miles, or 50 minutes by car. This means that we would have to leave San Rafael at 5:30 a.m. This also meant that if we wanted to have any kind of breakfast we’d better get up before 5:00 a.m.
So we did, and after a light snack, we left San Rafael around 5:30 a.m. and arrived in Yountville around 6:30 a.m.

There, we were briefed about hot-air balloons.
We were told that a balloon consists of a large bag called the “envelope” and a “gondola” (or wicker basket) that carries passengers. An experienced pilot would steer the craft. There was never any mention of parachutes.
All of us (about 30 people) were subsequently assigned a balloon. Ours was called Tango.

After this brief meeting, we were led to the adjacent parking lot where the beasts were being groomed and inflated.
It was an impressive and noisy operation. Heated air (by the means of a giant fan) is forced into the balloon to make it buoyant, and like a sleepy colossus, it rises majestically.

Four balloons were inflated at the same time and were readied to take off. Some carried 4 people, some 6 and ours the largest of them all (250 000 cubic feet) carried 12 passengers, plus the pilot.

The takeoff was almost imperceptible. We rose slowly and gained altitude without ever having the feeling of moving.
To my surprise, I discovered that the sky above the Napa Valley was filled with balloons, or at least 20 of them. They floated and rose silently past us us like giant pumpkins.

We drifted through the Napa Valley for about an hour while being steered and entertained by a very chatty (too chatty) pilot.
He flew his contraption with the greatest of ease. He lowered and made it rise seemingly at will. To spur its steed, he intermittently fired a kind of giant flame-thrower that pushed hot air into the envelope, and the balloon rose obediently.
While flying the beast he was in permanent radio contact with earthbound roadies that were following us with a van.

After about one hour aloft, the pilot set his sights on a landing spot. He told his crew about it and summoned them to an open area.
Once there, he lowered his craft and threw a line to his men.
They grabbed it and like Lilliputians they pulled the balloon down while the pilot was busy deflating the envelope. Something not unlike a Zeppelin landing.
We touched ground around 8:30 a.m. Mission accomplished! One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

So, how did you like it, I asked my significant other.
I loved it, but I could have stayed up a little longer she said.
OK. Since you like it that much, on your next birthday I’ll send you up on a balloon around the world for eighty days. That should cool your jets for a while.


PS: To look at pictures of this event, turn the sound on, click on the “Home” link at the top of the page, and click again on “My photos” located on the right side of the page.


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