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Rising Above It All : The Age-Old Lure to Be as Free as a Bird Still Keeps Tugging

July 26, 1990|MARK STENCEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In everything from hot air balloons to helicopters, people are jumping at the opportunity to soar, dangle and float over North County.

Although the aerial excursions are rarely what one would call cheap, they can be reasonably affordable. A glider flight for one over Warner Springs can cost as little as $34 and as much as $93. Balloon flights range in price from $120 to $160 a person.

"It's such a unique opportunity," said Alan Jenkins, a 36-year-old police officer after a recent balloon flight. "When you're going to have an experience that you will remember for the rest of your life, it's worth $135."

Here are a few of the aviation experiences available in North County:

BALLOONS

Sunset balloon flights over the San Dieguito River Valley in Del Mar are probably North County's best-known way to see the ground from the sky. Nearly a dozen different companies offer such flights.

One recent Friday evening, 13 of the multicolored hot-air balloons floated over the valley, just east of Interstate 5.

"It's the most romantic form of aviation," said Sam Slaughter, the operations manager and a pilot for A Beautiful Morning company of Del Mar. "It's very soothing."

Many balloonists offer sunrise flights as well, though coastal fog typically make the evening flights a better buy.

Besides, Slaughter said, "People aren't as grumpy."

The average altitude on a balloon flight is between 2,000 and 3,000 feet, though pilots can take their passengers as high as 5,000 feet.

Balloonists can also bring their passengers within just a few feet of the ground, navigating their 70-foot-tall vehicles along hillsides.

To steer the balloon, pilots track the direction of the wind before the flight with the help of local weather services, and by launching small helium balloons called pibals. The wind shifts at different altitudes, so pilots can dip or soar to change the direction their balloons are traveling.

"You can't steer (a balloon) as much as you can steer a plane or a helicopter, of course, but it is surprising the degree of control you do have," Slaughter said.

Since balloons travel with the wind, the breeze does not blow in passengers' faces and the gondola does not swing. As a result, there is very little sense of motion, even though the balloon is moving at average speeds of between 5 and 15 m.p.h.

Slaughter's passengers on this particular Friday include Tricia Taylor, a 42-year-old secretary whose husband, Mel, took her on the flight as a birthday present. The fact that it was Friday the 13th seemed to trouble Mel, a Navy lieutenant commander who says he prefers deep seas to open skies.

"When he told me he was going up with me I about fell over," Tricia said, watching Mel pace nervously. Although this will be Tricia's second balloon ride, it's Mel's first.

Slaughter says that up to a third of his passengers are nervous before a flight, though they usually calm down once they see how serene ballooning is.

"Have you ever had anybody freak out up here?" Tricia asked as the balloon began its ascent.

"Only the pilot," Slaughter said.

The temperature in the air is about the same as the temperature back on terra firma. In fact, the propane burner, which keeps the balloon aloft, is so hot that passengers actually may be warmer in the air than they are back on the ground. However, the temperature on the ground after sunset can get quite cool, so balloonists generally recommend that their passengers wear layered clothing.

The entire trip is spent standing up in the gondola, so comfortable shoes are a must. Transportation to the launch areas and from the landing sites--which could be several miles apart--is provided by the balloon company.

In addition to the flights themselves, most Del Mar balloon companies provide complementary Champagne after the landing, buffet or picnic-style hors d'oeuvres or meals, photographs, pins and flight certificates. The exact combination of these and other goodies depends on the company.

Most of the balloon companies require reservations, especially for flights on Saturday or Sunday evening. Friday flights are usually not as busy as other weekend evenings.

SAILPLANES

On at least a few occasions, passengers have lost their cookies in Bret Willat's sailplanes.

In most cases, Willat and his pilots can adjust their flight plans to accommodate the interests of their passengers, not to mention their passengers' stomachs.

Willat's company, Sky Sailing, is based at the Warner Springs Airport.

"We tailor our ride to the individual," Willat said. "For the person who's more nervous, we tone it down."

More than a dozen of Willat's passengers have used Sky Sailing's two-person flights as opportunities to propose marriage to their dates, including one passenger who had Willat's staff unroll a huge banner on the runway, popping the question in 3 1/2-foot-high painted letters.

For those passengers who feel more adventurous than amorous, Sky Sailing flights can be a roller-coaster ride that would make Disneyland's best engineers drool, Willat said.

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