On the weekend of the great balloon ride, we (Gary and Jen) drove up to Napa. Dad and Emily had prepared a wonderful lamb chop dinner and a three layer birthday cake!
The next day, we went to Sacramento for the California State Fair with Dad and Emily. We had a lot of fun, but the weather was quite warm so we didn't bring the camera along with us. :(
That night, we were pleasantly exhausted and went to bed early. It was a good thing too, for we had to get up at 4:15am to prepare for the balloon trip! We woke up, stumbled about for a bit, showered, found our things and headed for the door.
We drove to the Rancho Caymus Inn, about 15 minutes north of Napa, where we met up with some other adventuresome souls and were escorted by van to a nearby vineyard.
At the vineyard, we strolled about the gardens while the crew
began preparing our balloon for launch.
The crew began by inflating the balloon with cool air using a large gas-powered fan.
As the balloon filled, the pilot and crew walked around the inside and outside of the balloon checking the fabric and cables. Once the balloon was plump with air, the pilot began firing the burners to heat the air inside the balloon.
As the air heated up, the balloon began to rise and pulled the basket upright.
We then climbed into the basket with our pilot, named Gay, and she continued to heat up the air until the balloon was very nearly weightless.
There were two balloons lifting off from the same vineyard. Ours was a larger balloon which held up to eight passengers and the pilot. The basket was divided into five compartments - one for the pilot, and four which held two people each. The other balloon was smaller and only held about four people, including the pilot. We took a picture of the other balloon inflating just after climbing into our own basket.
Just before lifting off, we looked to the south and saw many other balloons already flying over the Napa Valley.
We barely noticed the lift-off -- it was such a smooth and gentle ride. As we left the ground, we snapped a couple of pictures of the other balloon and the vineyard.
Our pilot flew us slowly across the grape vines of the vineyard, keeping us just one or two feet above the vines. This was an incredible experience -- neither of us suspected that balloonists had so much control over their balloons.
Once we cleared the vineyard, we rapidly gained altitude and had a chance to admire our surroundings.
Soon after we left the ground, the other balloon joined us. They told us that if two balloons touch, it's called kissing and it scores a point in balloon competitions. As you can see, the other balloon was far below us, so there wasn't any chance of that happening. The center shot below is a picture of the vineyard we left. Both balloons launched from the parking lot in the lower left portion of the picture.
We wanted to take pictures of each other, but the cramped space in the balloon made this difficult. We got as far away from each other as possible and managed to snap a couple of shots.
Napa Valley was beautiful in the early morning sun.
As we flew, the chase crew kept a close eye on our position. On request from our pilot (via her radio), they'd frequently stop, check the wind direction at ground level and reposition themselves in the most likely landing place.
We flew both high and low, drifting in different directions as we passed through different layers of air. At about 2000 feet, we suddenly found ourselves in a layer of very warm air. It was quite surprising to feel a warm breeze so high above the ground.
After more than an hour in the air, our pilot began to look for a good landing spot. The wind was gentle, but kept changing directions, which made it difficult to predict where we were likely to come down. It was important to find a nice flat spot, which is difficult in Napa Valley because most of the land is covered with row after row of grapevines.
After several descents and climbs, we found a patch of flat ground to land on. The chase crew got themselves into position and we began to descend one last time.
As we approached the ground, the chase crew ran towards the balloon. Our pilot threw a rope over the side and the crew grabbed on. Our balloon very nearly pulled the crew into a row of grapevines, but they held steady and pulled the balloon towards the road.
The chase crew then walked to the truck which was waiting nearby, pulling our balloon along like a big kite.
The crew landed our balloon right on the back of the truck's trailer and we stayed in as ballast as they deflated and began to fold the balloon.
We then climbed out of the basket, safely on the ground again.
Our pilot, Gay, led us in a traditional balloonist toast and posed one last time with us before we all went off to breakfast at a nearby resort.