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THE GREAT OUTDOORS / A Guide to Valley / Ventura County
Recreation | In The Air

Up, Up and Away

Balloon Rides More Than Just Hot Air

June 11, 1998|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tug of a lever ignites a torch of burning propane and the 100,000-cubic-foot envelope woven of dacron and polyester quickly bulges with heated air.

Ever so gently the brown wooden basket, filled with four passengers and as many fuel tanks, is lofted skyward.

A blanket of rolling green hills, sprawling fruit orchards and stately equestrian farms comes gracefully into view as the colorful aircraft drifts upward.

Up, up and away. . .

There are not many more pleasant ways to spend a Sunday morning than floating in a hot-air balloon 1,000 feet above the Tierra Rejada Valley, which links Simi Valley and Moorpark. Even if it does mean awakening before dawn to catch your flight.

Thousands of passengers have floated the friendly skies in Bruce Brinkerhoff's beautiful balloon. So far, there hasn't been so much as one complaint of lost luggage or flight delays.

"A balloon ride just brings out a lot of excitement in people," said Brinkerhoff, owner and chief balloon pilot for Burbank-based Oz Airlines. "We're met with smiles from everyone."

Indeed, more than 200 years after Marquis d' Arlandes and Pilatre de Rozier, the Wright brothers of hot-air ballooning, made their historic 5 1/2-hour flight over Paris, man's first method of flight endures as one of life's delights--for passengers and observers.

California is the backyard of hot-air ballooning. On any fair-weather weekend, a visual feast of dozens of balloons adorn the skies above Del Mar, Palm Springs and Tehachapi, all among the busiest ballooning areas in the country because of optimum wind conditions.

Locally, frequent floaters flock in smaller numbers to remote areas of Antelope Valley and Ventura County, where early morning wind conditions are favorable and wide-open spaces allow for safe and soft landings.

Brinkerhoff is among more than a half-dozen Federal Aviation Agency-licensed commercial balloon pilots in the region. Operators typically charge between $125 and $150 per person for a flight that lasts approximately an hour but is like no other journey by air.

"I don't think I've ever met anyone who didn't enjoy it," said Hugh Ehrlich, owner and chief pilot of Hot Air Balloon Adventure in Newbury Park. "Not after they've done it."

The balloon business appears cleared for takeoff this summer after being grounded much of the past several months by El Nino.

"This year has really thrown us a curve like none other," said Brinkerhoff, whose business has been in operation since 1984. "But here in Southern California we are blessed with very good weather conditions."

Flights typically are scheduled by dawn's early light, when the sudden warming of the Earth creates predictable wind patterns. Pilots navigate by studying and interpreting winds, which are layered like a parfait and move in different directions at different altitudes.

A pilot, for instance, can direct his craft southward by increasing or decreasing altitude, which is controlled by increasing or decreasing the torch.

Before launching from an FAA-designated balloon "airport"--actually a vacant lot in west Simi Valley--a small, helium-filled trial balloon is released and its course charted.

"Looks like we'll be headed out toward Moorpark," Brinkerhoff said.

Balloons and baskets are unloaded from small trucks and assembled by a team of three in about 20 minutes. During flight, the support crew communicates via radio with the pilot while trailing the balloon.

Whisking along at 8 mph above the hills surrounding the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the colorful airship stays the course of the trial balloon while treating passengers to wild-life sightings of coyotes and hawks.

The multi-colored, striped airship likewise does not go unnoticed by horn-tooting motorists or agitated canines, whose faint yelps can be heard from above.

"They're barking at us," Brinkerhoff said. "They patrol the sky."

Statistically, balloon flight is the safest form of air transportation, according to the Balloon Federation of America. Still, as in all flights, landing presents the greatest risk of danger.

Sudden gusts near the ground can cause a tricky landing. Ehrlich, a 20-year pilot, recalled being whipped along at 50 mph while trying to land in a New Mexico desert. But such instances are rare, balloonists say.

Approaching an open field, Brinkerhoff steers his craft toward a safe landing area and the carriage comes to rest as softly as a butterfly with sore feet.

A rendezvous is made with other balloons, and passengers feast on champagne and cheese, traditional post-flight fare for balloonists.

Most balloon flights are scheduled in celebration of occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, first dates, even memorials in which ashes are poignantly sprinkled over lush meadows.

But when conditions become even slightly blustery, balloon pilots respectfully keep their crafts on the ground.

"It's always better to be down here wishing we were up there," Brinkerhoff said, "than to be up there wishing we were down here."

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