Okay, I’ve got something to admit. I have a small fear of heights. The fact that I’m on my way to be propelled up several thousands of feet into the sky is making my stomach churn. However, I’ve been told that a ride in a hot air balloon is nothing to be frightened of and is actually quite an enjoyable experience. So I’m headed out to Perris, CA to meet the balloon crew that will help me overcome my fear by participating in my very first hot air balloon ride.
We’ve agreed to meet at the launch site at 6:15 AM. As we arrive I see several people already stretching out giant amounts of brightly colored material across the large empty field. Yep those are the balloons we would soon be riding in. Most people pay a hefty price for a balloon adventure from one of the many companies that offer rides. But we were lucky enough to know someone who knew someone…needless to say we were sort of invited to join the balloon crew of “Serenity” the yellow hot air balloon with the distinctive sidewinder pattern. Nope we didn’t have to pay a dime. The only condition was that we would help with all the chores like setting up the balloon, chasing after it to help it land, and putting everything away at the end of the flights. Agreed!
Some of the balloon crew has come to greet us and encourages us to grab a pair of leather work gloves and begin to help stretch out the balloon. It is already stretched out so we stand by while the crew begins to inflate the balloon with the hot air. The air tank is loud and the flame it produces is huge. Just as I begin to wonder how the flame doesn’t melt the balloon material, a nearby veteran explains that the material is flame retardant. In no time, the balloon begins to take shape. In other areas of this big field, balloon crews are performing the same steps to set up their own balloons.
The balloon crew pilot gives us some initial instruction and sets up the plan for the day. Each flight will consist of one pilot and 3 crew members. Anyone not flying will assist in chasing the balloon during it’s descent. Ah yes, and now we must sign the release forms waiving away any right to sue in case of an emergency. I knew this was coming. Not helping to calm my nerves.
Since my friend set up this trip, he will fly first. The basket is turned upright as the balloon gets its last amount of heated air. The area where this air collects is called the envelope. The pilot and 3 passengers climb into the basket. We help to remove some of the sandbags and weights that help keep the basket on the ground. A few of the men are holding onto large ropes until the pilot instructs to let them go. Up, up and away the balloon flies.
The balloon seems to be rising at a slow yet constant rate of speed. In no time, other hot air balloons begin to ascend following Serenity’s lead. The balloons get so high, I can no longer see the people in the basket. The reason hot air balloons fly so early in the morning is because winds are usually gentle and there are no thermals. The pilot also will check the weather to ensure it is a safe morning for flight. After about 25 minutes it appears that the balloon is descending. “Get in the truck” yells one of the crew members. We are driving over the sometimes muddy fields towards the balloon. The pilot can control the altitude of the balloon but not necessarily the direction. It all depends on which direction the winds are blowing. So we drive like something out of a Mad Max movie to try to estimate the landing location of the balloon. We are close and the balloon is descending fast. We all jump out of the truck and run through the field towards the balloon. “Grab hold of the rope” someone yells. I grab the rope along with several other people to try to stabilize the balloon and help guide it down safely. The wind tries to shift the balloon and send it back up but we have good control of the ropes now. No wonder they wanted us to wear heavy gloves. Just as soon as the basket lands, the three crew members hop out and I am told it is my turn to ride. Gulp!
My heart is pounding half out of the excitement of the crazy truck ride through the fields and half because I am about to say goodbye to the safety of the solid ground. We begin to rise so very slowly that I can’t feel any elevation gain at all. It is calm and peaceful and not frightening like I thought it would be. It feels as if an elevator is lifting us up slowly with absolutely no turbulence to disturb the basket. The confidence of the pilot also fills me with calm. He shows us that when the air goes into the envelope, we ascend, and when it escapes we descend.
Each ride in this hot air balloon is referred to as a “hop” and usually will last about 30 minutes or so. We have ascended to an elevation where I can see other balloons enjoying the spectacular morning view from way up here. It is a little foggy because it is so early in the morning, but the view is still pretty clear. We were instructed to wear layers of clothing because it can get quite chilly way up here. Down on the ground you will want to peel off some layers of clothing as the day warms up.
Below me I can see the trucks from our ballon crews driving over the dirt fields. They look like small little Matchbox cars racing towards us. It doesn’t seem like it’s been very long at all, but my peaceful ride has come to an end. As the basket finally makes contact with the ground, I hop out and my brother and two other crew members hop in for the final flight of the day.
Up they soar just as easily as I did. I know most people are nervous the first time they ride a hot air balloon, but after this experience I realize that having a wonderfully prepared crew and capable pilot will make the flight seem effortless. I am so glad I tried this and didn’t even think of my fear of heights while I was in the air.
After about 30 minutes, we hop into the trucks and race towards the balloon one last time. This time the balloon has drifted far off towards the highway. It is an exciting thing to try to chase down a hot air balloon especially when your trying to guess where it will land while driving. We jump out of the trucks and run through the muddy field at full speed to try to catch Serenity as it lands. Success!
Well that was the last flight of the day, but the day is not over. As we help to guide Serenity back to the launch site, we are greeted by the crew captain and told there is a champagne breakfast waiting for us! But first, we participate in a little initiation ceremony to celebrate our first flights. I’ve heard that airplane pilots who complete their first solo flight will usually get “initiated” into the group by the senior pilots, but I never expected that would apply to us.
Our initiation is pretty simple and fun. The new crew members including myself line up on their knees while a female veteran pours us each a glass of champagne and orange juice. Without using our hands we are told we must drink the champagne on the count of three. One…two…three…down the hatch it goes. We all drink till our cups are empty while the veteran balloon crew cheers us on. Then the veterans give us a round of applause and shake our hands congratulating us on our first flights.
The crew captain affixes a colorful metal pin of the Serenity hot air balloon to each of our shirts and then hands us a Certificate of Flight. What a phenomenal experience and team! We have worked up quite an appetite, and head over to enjoy the champagne breakfast that has been prepared for us. The Serenity balloon team is really a unique group since they don’t operate as a business but instead a devoted hobby. If you are interested in flying with them, you can contact them through the Serenity Balloon Team website to inquire about becoming a crew member. Don’t let a fear of heights stop you from enjoying this incredibly fun adventure in the sky.