Long is one of 26 pilots in the Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic this weekend in Windsor. He’s also one of just eight commercial hot air balloon pilots in Sonoma County (the FAA requires a “lighter than air” certification for licensed pilots to fly a balloon).
"That’s cool, Jimmy. So, how long have you been flying?" I asked.
Jimmy looked at me. “About two weeks now.”
Apparently pilots like to mess with passengers when they’re the only two people in a wicker basket 350 feet above the ground. (Really, he’s been participating in the Hot Air Balloon Classic for five years, for fun and to show local pride, and piloting longer than that.)
So we take off from Keiser Park around 7am, soaring majestically over the Sonoma County Airport, the Windsor Golf Club and hundreds of acres of vineyards. Past the paved roads and cul-de-sacs is where the true beauty of Sonoma County comes to life: we’re surrounded by mountain ranges, vineyards and oak trees enveloped in a clear blue sky. A trace of wind pushes us south, and with eyes closed, it’s impossible to tell we are even moving.
Swooping down to about 15 feet, Jimmy shows off some nifty piloting skills hovering above a group of vineyard workers. From even 100 feet up, we can hear dogs barking, peacocks crowing and even the rustling of workers brushing by grape leaves in the field. Skipping past a nearby tree, we get close enough that I can pluck a fruit, or a nut, or something, from a branch about 30 feet in the air.
Seeing my amazement at this fancy maneuver, Jimmy takes us closer to a couple more trees. His favorite thing about flying balloons, he says, is sharing the experience with others. My favorite thing, here above the county, is letting the wind take us wherever it may, having real control only over altitude and seeing the area from a whole new perspective. But I suppose one might get used to that after a few trips.
We land once in a soft dirt field in Windsor, but we figure it might be easier to pick up the balloon in a different spot, so off we go to find a more suitable landing space. After picking up some significant speed (22 knots!) we end up all the way in southwest Santa Rosa, flying over a couple pot farms (the rottweilers and fenced-off gardens tip us off). Coming in for a landing isn’t easy, as the winds change at different altitudes. We end up in a farm, which may or may not have been neighboring yet another marijuana growing operation, with a very nice man who helps us get the balloon and basket from out of his goat and sheep pen.
The goats were skeptical at first, but let us pass.
Jimmy says it’s common to land on farms, and that most people are welcoming. Some even request him to land near their house so they can watch the spectacle.
If you go hot-air ballooning, wear comfy clothes and don’t bring a picnic basket or wear high heels. Oh! And when using a camera/phone, make sure it’s somehow fastened to your body – my poor note-taking pen slipped to an early death, 200 feet below.
The 22nd annual Hot Air Balloon Classic begins Saturday, June 16, at 5am in Keiser Park with “dawn patrol” tether rides and a 6:30am main launch. In addition to balloon rides, there will be food and craft booths, kids’ activities and much more. Tickets are $10 for 13 years and older, $6 for 6- to 12-year-olds, with no charge for ages under 6. For more info, check out www.schabc.org or call 707.838.5345.
UPDATE!: The Hot Air Balloon Classic also drives the girls wild.