“Seriously Mom, it’s still dark outside!”
It was a beautiful crisp morning in Windsor at the Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic. I woke my two older daughters up at 4:30am, bundled them in several layers of sweaters and warm jackets, prepared a couple travel mugs of tea, and headed out. We arrived to a full parking lot at 5:30am but easily found a spot in a neighborhood close enough to walk to Keiser Park.
In the early dawn, the sky was just beginning to lighten but the die-hard fans were already set up with picnic blankets and lawn chairs. We staked out a spot near the main launch, and watched the crews roll out the envelopes (the balloons) and prepare the lines. They worked in such comfortable coordination; their actions seemed almost like a synchronized dance. While one person rolled out the balloon, two pulled the sides spreading it out wide. Then they straightened all the ropes and wires and began filling the balloons with air.
According to one passionate observer, the balloons can be filled with a gas that is lighter than air, such as helium, in order to facilitate long-distance flights however, the cost of helium in today’s market could be up to $20,000 due to the rapidly declining supply of natural helium. A typical hot air balloon is filled with 90,000 cubic meters of air, big enough to fit 90,000 basketballs! Since these balloons are only traveling a short distance, giant fans are rolled out to inflate the envelopes and prepare for flight.
As the envelopes started to inflate, people gathered around the tarps to capture the unique photo opportunity. Watching them slowly take form, it was incredible to see not only how huge they grew, but to consider that that they could carry a basket with a pilot inside. Some balloons were simple stripes of colored cloth, while others were more intricately shaped: there was a fish, a pencil boy, Pepe le Pew, Sylvester the Cat, the Purple People Eater, and even Yoda and Darth Vader.
Once the balloons were nearly full and standing upright, the air was blasted by a burner so strong we could feel the heat from 20 feet away. The process of unrolling and prepping the envelopes took almost half an hour, but once they were full it was a matter of minutes until a final check was performed and they were ready to fly.
One after another, the balloons filled and launched. Watching dozens of balloons sail through the sky as the pilots waved to the cheering crowds below was absolutely a memorable experience. Kids and adults alike stared at the sky in awe, comments flying through the air about favorite balloons over the backdrop of the amusing announcer who called the crowd’s attention to fun facts about the different teams.
After the balloons launched, we took a long walk around the park to see the various tents and activities offered on our way out. There were many food trucks and vendors, kid’s activities such as a bounce house and climbing wall, and balloons being handed out at several locations. There was beer, wine, tea and coffee for sale, and the Rotary Club had a tent selling plates of breakfast. They also offered tethered rides in hot air balloons that remained staked to the ground, to give the rider an idea of what it feels like to sail through the sky in a basket.
Walking back to the car, the girls chatted away about their favorite balloons, and the fish that looked like it was kissing Darth Vader. Since we parked in a nearby neighborhood, the traffic was light getting back onto freeway, although the cars that paid for parking in the lots were often stuck behind pedestrians walking down the middle of the streets.
“Yeah, that was awesome. Totally worth it.”
Would you like to attend this year’s hot air balloon classic? Click the link below!