For our wedding, Joel's Aunt Shelly and Uncle Jack gave us tickets for a hot air balloon ride in Del Mar. We ended up taking the ride on our three-month anniversary. We started the day at the main office, where we signed a release form and met the other passengers and our pilot. We drove from there, with balloon in tow, to a dirt field near the polo fields. Our pilot tested the air currents by releasing a white helium balloon and watching its path until it was just a little speck in the clouds. After waiting for ten or fifteen minutes for the breeze to die down, the pilot and assistants started setting up the balloon. They started by unrolling the balloon onto a large tarp. Then they filled it up with cold air with the aid of a powerful fan. Finally, they turned on the propane burners to heat up the air. As the one hundred thousand cubic feet of air warmed up, the balloon quickly rose and tilted the basket upright.
Our balloon was capable of holding up to eleven people, although on the day we travelled there were only eight passengers and the pilot. Another balloon company was launching a balloon ("Hummingbird") at the same time, so we occasionally had another balloon to look at during the flight when our paths met.
Our flight took us four or five miles to the east, carrying us over some of the wealthiest areas of Del Mar. While we were still just a thousand or two feet above the ground, we saw one enormous mansion after another, interspersed with golf courses, tennis courts, and swimming pools. Much of the area is still being developed, and on occasion we could see the floorplan of a house still in the works.
Because our balloon was not filled to capacity and the passengers were light, our pilot was able to take us one mile above ground level. We were treated to a stunning view of the clouds and sunlight from that height. Since the balloon was carried by the wind, we actually felt no breeze during the trip; what little air movement we did feel came from our upward and downward motion.
Sound from the ground carried quite well to our balloon, allowing us to hear barking dogs and the sounds of the construction. Our pilot told us about a time when he was over the clouds and could hear the strains of an outdoor classical music performance... the closest thing to heaven, he said.
As we came down from the clouds, we could see our landing site, a large expanse that was once used for tomato plants, then for cattle, and is now being bulldozed to make way for development. We were lucky and hit our target. Every so often the winds misbehave and force some rather bizarre landings. Our pilot once had to land on the beach, and on other occasions has landed within some of the wealthy gated communities.
As we approached the ground, our pilot radioed the ground crew to coordinate a landing point. Our landing was smooth, just a few bumps, and the assistants were right there to jump on the basket and help stabilize it. We watched them perform the difficult task of emptying the balloon of air, rolling it up, and hefting the heavy basket back onto the truck.
Once we escaped from the tangled roads of the construction site, we drove back to the main office, where snacks and a birthday cake (for our 21-year-old fellow passenger) awaited us. Each passenger received a "flight certificate" to commemorate the event. Thanks, Shelly and Jack! We had a great time!