If you have ever looked up and spotted a hot air balloon drifting overhead, you can bet on one thing…the guests onboard are having an adventure of a lifetime. It is 6:00am in downtown Los Olivos and I catch sight of a balloon with a giant cowboy riding a bucking bronco gracing the front. I can’t recall ever seeing a hot air balloon in oak-studded Santa Ynez Valley. That’s probably because there haven’t been any for a very long time.
Ballooning in Wine Country near Santa Ynez
Curious about this balloon, I follow the flying object by car. It touches down ten minutes later on a spacious field outside of town. I step out and eagerly make my way on foot as a half dozen passengers in light jackets and long pants file out of a woven wicker basket rimmed with leather. Everyone has a smile etched on their face. Digital cameras are pulled as the pilot prepares a champagne breakfast for them. “Looks like fun,” I say, holding out my hand and introducing myself. “There’s nothing better,” replies Greg Wellens, a Colorado resident and an accomplished balloon pilot who arrives in Los Olivos every September through April, offering daily flights for those interested in getting an aerial perspective of our valley from a hot air balloon. “Unlike other California balloon flights, which often take place in crowded metropolitan areas, we have the perfect location here,” the 35-year-old explains. “Our incredible flying machine soars high above the valley where magnificent views of the entire Santa Ynez Valley can be appreciated. At high altitudes, postcard views of the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands are visible.” During portions of the flight, I learn the balloon will also float a few feet above the pastoral grounds, offering perfect photo opportunities of deer, wild boar, red tail hawk, eagles, and other local wildlife commonly sighted. Interested in making a similar trip, Greg invites me to meet him at 5:30am the next morning at the Los Olivos Café for an incredible balloon flight –– an offer I cannot refuse.
As the sun peeks over the horizon a half past five, I meet Greg with coffee in hand and follow him to a nearby ranch, which he refers to as his “launch site.” While several other guests and I stand by for the morning activity, Greg and his team inflate a toy balloon to test the wind direction, speed and flight path (critical in determining where we will land). With favorable conditions in sight, the members of Adventures Out West / Unicorn Balloon Company hoist a bundled balloon (known as the “envelope”) along with a wicker basket from a convenient two-wheel trailer Greg pulls behind his Suburban. Unrolling the $40,000 envelope, I discover the fabric is rip-stop nylon – the same type of cloth used for parachutes – while the lower portions around the opening are a fire resistant material similar to what race car drivers and firemen wear. In total, the envelope and gondola measure an impressive 100 feet
Using twin five horsepower fans, the envelope is inflated with cold air in about fifteen minutes while two 25-gallon propane tanks and burners are secured to the basket’s uprights. Greg tells me each burner is capable of delivering 12 million BTUs –– that’s a lot of heat considering an average home furnace doles out about 150,000 BTUs. Both burners will be used in flight to keep the balloon flying. As Greg’s team oversees the inflation process, the passengers and I are given a pilot’s briefing. “We will be traveling two to three miles at an elevation of 500 to 5,000 feet depending on conditions,” Greg says, before adding, “Since there are no wheels or brakes on the balloon, the landing is always unpredictable. But with the calm Santa Ynez winds today, we should have a smooth touch-down.” With the envelope fully inflated, Greg gives the “All Aboard” and we step cozily into the wicker basket, ready for our in-flight cruise.
In the amount of time it takes for me to switch lenses on my camera, Greg fires up the burners and we lift off, sailing silently over the tops of the trees. Cruising speed is a comfortable two to five knots. The trip is already surreal. It’s not like any other form of flight I’ve experienced. Unlike a plane or helicopter, we are not confined to an inside compartment, and we are free to enjoy the crisp refreshing air. It’s also pleasant not to hear that annoying drone of an engine or propeller reverberating in the background. For the time we are in the sky, we find ourselves completely fixated on the breathtaking beauty as we become one with nature – a familiar experience once shared by balloon pioneers Jean Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis Francois-Laurent d’Arlandes in Paris.
“On September 19, 1783, a sheep, a duck and a rooster became the first passengers in a hot air balloon,” Greg shares with us while keeping an eye on his chase crew who follows below in Greg’s Suburban. “Made of paper and cloth, the balloon was launched after Louis XVI had decreed the first flight should be flown with animals. After the balloon landed safely, Rozier and d’Arlandes decided to make the trip themselves. Two months later, before a crowd of 400,000, the men boarded a balloon constructed of paper and silk and piloted their balloon on a 22-minute flight and straight into the record books.” For pilot Greg Wellens, his first balloon ride occurred in 1973 when his father, Bruce, purchased a balloon for the family. “My dad was working for the ski patrol in Colorado when a friend of his told him about ballooning,” Greg recalls. “My father thought it would be a great way to advertise because you could fly the balloon over town or inflate it and keep it idle next to a store or business. The next thing I know, we are the proud owners of one big balloon.” When Bruce and wife Patty borrowed $12,000 and ordered their balloon, there were only 200 of them in the world. Today, there are more than 4,000 FAA certified balloons in the United States, another 1,000 filling the skies in other parts of the globe, and 7,000 licensed U.S. balloon pilots. Greg and his father are two of them. While Bruce has been flying balloons for more than thirty years –– having pioneered many of the first balloon trips in Colorado –– Greg is celebrating his fifth season, but don’t underestimate his experience. “Before I learned to fly, I was chasing balloons in the family business for thirty years,” he says. “I must admit though, it’s sure exciting to finally be in the basket.” When not taking customers up in one of his twelve balloons, Greg prefers to test the limits of a hot air balloon, such as ascending to 21,000 feet over rugged mountain peaks. But it’s Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley that Greg is enamored with.
“Santa Barbara has the ideal weather for ballooning,” he says. “There are rarely any clouds, rain or cold fronts, and during the months of September through April, our season for flying here, there is hardly any fog.” Greg goes on to say that the scenic beauty, from the Pacific Ocean to the Los Padres National Forest, provides the perfect dreamlike setting. “Ballooning is a sport of elegance that begins with the first warmth of the morning sun,” he adds. “At sunrise, the winds are at their calmest and the peaks and valleys of Santa Barbara County are at their finest. There’s something magical about this place.”
As our bucking bronco –– a design chosen by Bruce and Greg to pay homage to their love for horses – lifts to about 2,000 feet, I ask Greg how he controls the balloon. “It’s using the basic principle of hot air rises and cold air sinks,” he explains. “When the air inside the envelope is heated, the balloon rises. To descend, I simply allow the air to cool, making the balloon heavier than the air outside.” By monitoring the up and down movements of the envelope, Greg is in complete control of his balloon.
Now elevating to 4,000 feet, I ask Greg if he knows where we will land. “The simple answer is that nobody knows, exactly, but we have done flight planning before the launch to ensure the forecasted wind direction does not take us toward an unsuitable area.” Before any panic can set in, Greg unleashes a searing flame above my head and says that he relies on the varying air currents at different altitudes to “steer” the balloon toward a safe landing place. It makes perfect sense since balloons are at the mercy of the wind when it comes to direction, and cannot fly upwind or crosswind.
Half way through our trip, I cannot get over what a relaxing and peaceful experience this is. It reminds me of being on board a sailboat with my feet kicked up enjoying the breeze. Unlike aircraft, there isn’t any turbulence and it’s almost too smooth to describe. There also isn’t any feeling of vertigo from being up so high. It’s not like standing on a roof or a high ladder looking down. It’s more like the ground is unfolding beneath us, and because we are moving with the wind, there is no wind blowing making the basket completely stationary without any rocking or swaying. Just then, one of the passengers asks a question that snaps me back into reality. “What happens if a bird flies into our balloon?” I crane my neck to hear Greg’s answer. “It will likely bounce off,” he replies with a chuckle. “The envelope fabric is much tougher than it might appear. In fact, it is possible to fly a balloon with a hole large enough for a person to fit through…so long as the hole is not at the top of the envelope.”
Upon our descent, I inquire about potential disasters. “Ballooning is one of the safest forms of aviation,” Greg admits. “There are inherent risks involved, but accidents are usually the result of poor pilot decisions.” I’m also reminded that because balloon flights originate in rural and sometimes remote areas, not at airports, the landings can be quite interesting sometimes. For guests interested in experiencing a balloon flight, Greg recommends they be fit and in good physical condition. They should also research the balloon company they are intending to fly with. “All balloon companies claim to be the best and safest, so it is always a good idea to ask how long they have been flying,” he says. “Also ask if they have ever been in an accident, are they a new company, when was their last flight, and request a copy of their insurance certificate.” With a wink, Greg nudges me and recites the old balloonist saying: “It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”
With knees bent, I brace myself for our landing on an open field ahead. I wait in anticipation as we drift lower and lower until finally we bump the soft earth. Immediately, the basket gently rebounds and touches back down before coming to a stop. “Not bad,” I holler, having anticipated the worst. As Greg’s chase team arrives on cue and secures the balloon, we all climb out of the basket while the envelope is deflated. Keeping with tradition, Greg gets to work preparing our champagne breakfast which includes mimosas, fresh strawberries and warm pastries. “Piloting balloons will always be special to me because I get to share a ‘first-time experience’ with hundreds of people every year,” Greg says. Over the last 30 years, Greg and his father have flown all walks of life from farmers and school teachers to Aerosmith, Cher, the San Francisco 49ers football team, and a handful of divas from the World Wrestling Federation. “Many cannot recall their first date if you ask them,” Greg concludes, “but everyone seems to remember their first balloon flight.”