Floating in a hot air balloon with Yolo Ballooning Adventures
Flying in a hot air balloon over Yolo County in Winters, California, with Yolo Ballooning Adventures is spectacular and fun. Finish off the sunrise balloon flight with a bubbly rosé at Turkovich Family Wines.
Ever since hearing the story of Winnie the Pooh floating upward in search of honey while clutching a blue balloon I have imagined doing the same – flying, of course, not going in search of honey. I will confess as a child to wondering if it might be possible to tie enough balloons to my wagon and drift away on such a grand adventure. There is something captivating, mystical, and marvelous about balloons. Which is why, nearly 60 years after reading about Pooh’s adventure, I was thrilled to be invited to fly in a hot air balloon and live a lifelong dream, thanks to Yolo Ballooning Adventures.
Up up and away with Yolo Ballooning Adventures
While a sunrise hot air balloon ride sounds romantic, the reality of the 5 a.m. wake-up call in our hotel was anything but. Therese and I pried open our eyes and kickstarted our engines with cups of coffee. Sufficiently awake, we wandered out of Hotel Winters and around the corner to the Turkovich Family Wines tasting room. Thanks to a unique partnership with Turkovich arranged by Mike Veliz, general manager and head pilot of Yolo Ballooning Adventures, the sky-high adventures begin and end at the tasting room in Winters, California. While champagne was promised at the conclusion of our flight, all that mattered right now was a bathroom. After all, it’s hard to find a place to pee when you’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others in a basket.
We bundled into a truck, and off we went to the launch area. The rising sun was just beginning to color the horizon as Mike and his crew member, Grace Molnar, offloaded the basket and the balloon (otherwise known as the “envelope”). Several other companies were in the field that morning, also busily working on their balloons, readying for a sunrise launch.
As Grace worked to unfurl the balloon to its full length, Mike made sure Therese and I understood how to safely climb into and out of the basket. Following his demonstration and safety chat, he had each of us climb into and out of the basket to prove we were awake, listening, and aware of the safety precautions.
And then it was time to fill our balloon, Winters Breeze, which was so named as it was the first balloon the company purchased after moving its operations to Winters. Mike turned on a huge fan, which in turn blew air into the balloon as he and Grace held the mouth open. Slowly, it filled and began to take shape. With the balloon nearly full, Mike stepped into the basket, which was now on its side and attached to the balloon, and turned on the powerful burners with a whoosh and a roar. The fan was turned off, and heated air now filled the balloon the rest of the way so it lifted skyward, pulling the basket upright. With the basket still tethered to the ground, Mike motioned each of us to come over and board. Once Therese and I were safely inside, Mike untied the tether, and we floated up, up, and away.
It is a strange sensation suddenly to not be on the ground – without even realizing you are floating upward– and watching the earth slip quietly away beneath you and yet not feeling any real movement. It is as if the earth were suddenly falling way, as we just hung motionless in space to watch.
“Oh my God, we’re up in the air!” Therese gleefully exclaimed.
I leaned over the edge of our basket as we were passing just above the top of one of three very large hot air balloons, each taking shape and looking like giant yellow mushrooms on the grassy field below. The top of one yellow giant was so close beneath us I felt as if I could simply reach out and touch it. The roar of the fans, burners and voices of other ballooning companies readying to fly their clients faded as we drifted farther up and away.
And then the flight was a silent ride, interrupted only by periodic whooshing blasts from the burners as Mike added more lift to our balloon when needed (or when we wanted a great flames photo!). We were now one with the wind, traveling at the same speed it was blowing. I didn’t feel air brushing past my skin, or sense movement unless I looked at the ground. It felt surreal.
Mike told us we were traveling at approximately nine miles per hour, but I had no concept of speed, other than when watching our balloon’s shadow skip across the treetops and grassy fields below. I looked back the way we had come and could see three other yellow shapes lifting into a blue sky, backdropped by hills painted gold in the early morning light. It was picture-perfect.
Halfway through our flight, Mike took Winters Breeze down to skim the treetops. It was, he said, one of his favorite moments in ballooning. As we skimmed the treetops, a large bird was scared off by the balloon, flapping its wings and following the path of Putah Crek just ahead of and below us. Mike told us that if we were quick as we were passing over the creek itself, we might catch a glimpse of our balloon’s reflection in the water. We looked and looked … and, then, the reflection appeared. Brief, but magical.
Mike took us upward again, climbing to just over 800 feet as we rode the wind for another few miles to our intended landing zone near a church playground. While we were in the air, Mike and Grace had been communicating via radio as Grace chased us on the ground to be in position wherever we did finally touch down. Ballooning is, after all, not an exact science. A lot depends on the skill of the pilot, to be sure, but every pilot is at the mercy of the wind direction and speed. Landing areas are, by nature, a general idea … one field or the next will do.
There is no doubt Mike is as good as they come, as he maneuvered our hot air balloon skillfully toward the ground, adding a bit of heat with a whoosh, letting out a bit of heat by pulling on a rope that opened a flap at the top of the balloon envelope.
We floated toward the ground gently, but rapidly. Mike had us assume the brace positions we had learned earlier, leaning against the front of the basket with a shoulder, holding firmly onto the top edge of the basket with one hand, and clutching our cameras under our arms securely since a landing may require a few skips and bumps before the basket settles.
“And here comes the first bump … in three, two, one … Grace is going to grab the back of the basket and …” And just like that, we were down. We landed with just one feathery bump, and then the squeak of the bottom of the basket sliding a few feet on the dry grass. As smooth as can be.
“Some landings are lighter than others,” Mike quipped.
Hot air ballooning tips and advice
You will enjoy yourself even more (if that is possible) if you dress for success. Meaning, wear comfortable walking shoes (no sandals) and dress in layers. Believe it or not, although it might feel cool on the ground in the early morning, once you are in the air and under the periodic blasts of heat from the propane flames above you, its delightfully comfortable in the basket. I’d also recommend a hat, sunglasses, and do not forget the camera.
Keep in mind however that the basket is a tight space with limited room to move around, meaning no big cameras or huge lenses. There may be just two of you plus the pilot in a small basket (as it was for Therese and myself), or there could be as many as 10 or 12 passengers and a pilot in a larger basket. Plus, Mike doesn’t allow backpacks and big bags for passenger safety and comfort, so put the camera around your neck and have a few pockets for any small personal items.
Which brings me to the question so often asked: Is hot air ballooning safe? It is, if you are flying with FAA-certified and experienced pilots and a company that takes great care to ensure a safe experience for its clients. That means safety talks prior and during the flight to pre-flight preparation and equipment quality. The most dangerous part of a flight, if you can believe it, is climbing in and out of the basket. Lots of ways to get tangled with loose items hanging around you. In other words, prepare to fly lean, mean and light with your hands free and nothing dangling.
For those wondering what hot air balloons are made of, it’s all state-of-the-art gear these days: ripstop nylon and Nomex (the same stuff firefighters wear because it is flame-resistant), which is a good thing when there is a hot flame at the mouth of the balloon. The basket is made of rattan, woven into a rigid and very strong frame.
As to how high you will fly, that will depend. Typically, you’ll float quietly along anywhere from tree level (which is the most amazing feeling) up to 2,000 feet, but usually no higher (although the world record for altitude in a hot air balloon is just under 65,000 feet, but that’s not for the touring balloons).
Sipping champagne, toasting a sunrise hot air balloon flight
No matter how high you fly, every successful hot air balloon flight deserves a champagne toast. Ours was back at the Turkovich Family Wines tasting room in downtown Winters, a short drive from where we landed. Like the celebratory moment it should be, Mike toasted our flight with a sparkling rosé from Turkovich as he recited the Balloonist’s Blessing. And then we got to relive the 41-minute, 6.15-mile-long adventure via Google Earth on a big screen in the tasting room (Mike has a tracking program so he can share the exact flight route and altitude throughout). And naturally, there were photos, which he’d already downloaded — some that were taken with his GoPro, and others Grace had taken when we were taking off. It was a perfect close to a delightful sunrise adventure.
“The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. We have flown so high and well that God has joined you in laughter and set you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth. Hear! Hear!” The Balloonist’s Blessing.
Now that I have been given a taste of balloon flight, my eyes are forever looking upward, searching for colorful bubbles floating in the sky, each carrying passengers in whatever direction the wind blows. And I long to be flying with them again.
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