Balloon Ride 2009

Oct 24, 2009

Last June Mom gave Joanna a balloon ride as a birthday gift. Joanna waited until fall so that we would see the vineyards changing color, and settled on October 24th.

We contacted Captain Chuck, the balloonist; he sent us a flyer with information about his business: ABOS Productions (A Balloon Over Sonoma). The day before the event I called him for last-minute details. He said we needed to get an early start, and suggested that we call him on his cell phone between 5 and 5:30 a.m. just to be sure that we were awake and were going to show up. We set two alarm clocks that night for the earliest time.

The alarm clocks went off simultaneously the next morning at 5 a.m. I got the coffee going and called Captain Chuck - all systems were go. He said that we didn't have to get up to Charles Schultz County Airport until 7 a.m. so there was plenty of time for breakfast and the trip north. The stars were out when we left the house; for me it has always been magical to set off on a journey before dawn. The first recollection I have of an early start like this was when I was in grade school and we went to Disney Land; Anaheim was a ways off and at that time there wasn't a freeway that reached out to Redlands where we lived - it was highway driving most of the way and took hours.

It was still dark when we arrived at the Kaffee Mocha restaurant near the airport around 6:50. Mars was high in the sky and Venus was bright in the east, but the stars were beginning to fade as the sky to the east began to lighten. After a bit Captain Chuck appeared in his van towing a trailer that housed the balloon. We checked in with him, signed some release forms, and waited while the rest of the passengers and ground crew arrived.

Nearby was a big van with BMC painted on it, and there were a series of Thule bicycle racks on top. We thought the fellow next to it was part of the expedition and we struck up a conversation with him about the van. Turns out BMC is a Swiss bicycle manufacturer and he was connected with them. BMC fields a large enough competitive team that half of them compete in Europe and the other half compete in North America. He had been invited to come along on a different balloon ride which was why he was there - apparently Kaffee Mocha is a popular meeting spot for balloonists and their clients.

Meeting Up
Capt Chuck Predawn

Bmc Van

Capt Chucks Jacket


Once everybody going on the ride had assembled Captain Chuck let go of two small helium balloons. They rose, drifting northwards for maybe eighty feet, then caught a wind heading south and east. He announced that because of the wind direction we needed to head to the west side of the airport for liftoff. We loaded up in Captain Chuck's van and headed to the launching location; as we passed the south edge of the airport he pointed out the location of the La Crema winery.

We entered the airport from a west gate and drove down past other balloon parties that were setting up. There was plenty of space for the crew to lay out blue tarps used to protect the fabric of the balloon when it was extracted from what looked like a laundry cart. The sun had yet to clear the horizon, and there was low fog towards the control tower. A corporate jet took off from the runway on the east side; we could hear it but couldn't see it until it lifted off. Mount St. Helena was prominent on the horizon and changed aspect with each passing minute. Near by other balloon parties were setting up, and the police had set up a cone-course for highspeed pursuit practice.

The crew rolled the basket out of the van, attached the burners, tipped the basket on its side, stretched out the balloon canopy, and started up a loud internal combustion fan. I was drafted to help hold the mouth of the balloon open so it could be filled; it had to be partially inflated with the cool morning air before the burners could be fired to make the balloon buoyant. I was given gloves and I held up the opening for several minutes until the balloon was perhaps half-full, then Captain Chuck fired up the burners. At that point it was really important to keep the opening up and the connecting ropes from sagging, as the flames would have made short work of the synthetic material.

Setting Up
Mount St Helena

Dawning Ridge

Balloon Cart

Mount St Helena2

Basket Unloading

Flight Tower And Fog

Other Balloon Group

Balloon Van And Trailer

Sea Plane

Capt Chuck And Ground Team

Mount St Helena3

Setup Burners

Helping Inflate

Neighbor Balloon

Capt Chuck And I

Add Heat





Ready To Fly

Ready To Fly2

Flight Checklist

Police Highspeed Training

Ed Training2

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Once the balloon canopy had risen and the basket was set upright, Capt. Chuck and we passengers clambered aboard. The ground crew hovered about as more hot air from the burners was blasted into the canopy, and before long the basket lifted off the ground. Except for the roar of the burners it was very quiet.

Below we saw the ground crew recede, along with the police fast pursuit class. The sun had been up for just a little while, causing objects on the ground to cast long shadows. Initially we drifted north, right over one of the neighboring balloons that had inflated but still was on the ground. Rising farther the winds at the higher elevation flowed in a different direction; we drifted south and east and soon were high enough to see the Sonoma-Cutrer winery with its croquet grounds to the west. There is an annual tournament there, a world championship in fact. Croquet is a vicious and brutal game - don't let the ages of the players in their white flannel croquet togs fool you. Thankfully we were safely above the playing fields, way out of range. There were other wineries and vineyards in the vicinity; the grape leaves had begun to turn. Looking south towards Petaluma we could see the fog that had intruded during the night that was burning off in the bright early light. The two balloons that had been near by on the ground had risen and followed us perhaps a half mile away.

Drifting south, we soon passed La Crema winery with its fountains gushing in a kidney-shaped pond. A number of impressive estates rolled by, and after awhile we reached the west edge of Santa Rosa

Wineries and Country
Ball O Fire

Flight Instruments

Air Borne

Long Shadow

Above Airport

Neighbor Liftoff

Looking West

Balloon Below

Police Highspeed Training2

West View

La Crema Winery

Above The Wine Country

Above The Wine Country2

Above The Wine Country3

Low Fog South

Sonoma Cutrer Croquet Grounds

Modest Digs


Balloon Buddies

Balloon Pal1

Balloon Pal2

La Crema Winery2

Leaving The Airport

Balloons And Vineyards

Clouds Forming

Vineyards Fall Color

Humble Shack

Here We Are

Snakey Lane

Shadow Cast

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The flight continued for around forty minutes while we oooo'd and aahhhh'd at the scenery. We drifted down Fulton Street after we left the vicinity of the airport and eventually crossed Highway 12. I recognized the buildings where Community Bikes is established; it is a non-profit organization that has a bike shop with perhaps a dozen stations and tools that people can use for $10 an hour to work on their bikes. Volunteers refurbish used bikes to be recycled back into the community for those short on cash and in need of transport. The organization also raises money by providing bikes to the Burning Man pyrotechnic festival in the Black Rock Desert.

Towards the end we drifted over the old Air Center, a former military air field. Some of the runways were still visible, but where the two main runways met was now the site of a relatively new housing development. The concrete that used to make up that section had been dug up and deposited in long, low ridges on the sides of the runways. I recognized the housing development from when I was working for FedEx; we used that neighborhood to practice our driving skills.

We had lost altitude for some time and the chase cars were easy to spot on the runway below. When we got close to the ground Captain Chuck tossed over a drag line and before long the ground crew got hold of it and walked us down the runway. We touched down with hardly a bump (not like some airplane landings, where a cantankerous passenger asks afterwards, "So did we crash, or were we shot down?"). We all stayed in the basket until the balloon cooled off a bit and lost buoyancy. The crew laid out tarps downwind of the basket so that the canopy could be coaxed to a graceful deflation. Meanwhile, our balloon buddies in the sky came in for a landing as well, but the wind had already shifted a bit so they landed about 100 yards away.

The crew got the canopy deflated and packed back into a cart. Once the cart and basket were safely loaded into the trailer, we headed back to Kaffee Mocha for a champagne brunch. I had the crepes Florentine - yumm! It turns out that Capt. Chuck had flown commercially (as in airliners) for 12 years; one of our former neighbors who owned an aerobatic airplane had crewed for Chuck and recommended him highly. He had stories to tell and we had a good time.

So, that was it; the day was young and we set off for other adventures.

Approach and Landing
Curving Street

Community Bikes

The Old Air Center

Ground Crew Waiting

Ground Crew In Pursuit

Line Dropped To Crew

Terra Firma

Connecting Shadow



Capt Chucks Balloon Biz



Final Squeeze

Ready For Packing

Loading The Cart

Balloon Pressing

Loading The Trailer

Capt Chuck And Passengers