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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Hot air, good wine: Ballooning over Napa the perfect combination

The career killjoys have stopped asking Scott van der Horst if he’s ever going to get a real job. No one pesters him anymore about putting away his great big inflatable toys to pursue a more grounded profession. Maybe they’ve given up. Or maybe they realize that sooner or later, he’s bound to come back down to earth. After all, eventually coming back down to earth is an essential component of being a successful hot air balloon pilot.

And he’s among the best. He’s flown scenic sorties over European castles, Costa Rican rain forests and grape-swelled vineyards in both France and California. He’s been an intimate observer to hundreds of matrimonial proposals from men who are convinced that 2,000 feet above the earth is the perfect place to pop the question, never mind that “balloon” and “pop” are words that pilots like van der Horst are loath to hear in the same sentence. And he’s seen competent executives break into a cold sweat when he’s unable to pinpoint just where they’ll be 90 minutes after take off.

 “So many people are so used to micro-organizing their lives that they have real trouble letting go,” he says. “When they ask where we’ll be landing, I always have the same response: ‘Earth.’ I’ve been doing this 37 years I’ve never landed in the same place twice. I can’t say where we’re going to land, but land we always do.”

Since the dawn of time, man has yearned to soar with the birds. We can jet to and fro around the world and kiss the very envelopes of outer space. But of all the cloud-clinging devices we’ve created, the childishly charming balloon is alone in allowing us to become one with the wind. Whether going 2 or 200 mph,  passengers experience no sense of motion. Captives of massive currents of air, balloonists are prisoners who feel utterly free.

 As the owner of Wine Country Balloon Tours, van der Horst oversees a staff of 14 and a fleet of four balloons, including a $100,000 10-story behemoth capable of hauling 20 passengers over the scenic Sonoma Valley, where he’s been based since 1982. He’s personally lifted off the ground, in groups ranging from 2 to 20, more than the entire  19,763 seating capacity of Madison Square Garden, and he’s done it with an effortless aplomb that makes desk-bound executives seriously consider tossing their stressful commitments overboard to learn the delicate art of hot air balloon pilotry.

“To get it right, you really need to give me about a year of your life and bust your tail with the ground crew,” he says. “For every 10 hours you spend hauling crates, tying ropes, learning basic meteorology and chasing the balloon, you earn an hour of balloon time under the throttle. Daily pay is $50 to $75 in tips. Soon, you’re qualified to pass the F.A.A. test.”

For a number of rat race escapees with equal amounts disposable patience and income, that sounds like a bargain. The lure of silently floating along on an invisible river of wind to an unknown destination is too strong to resist. It’s been tugging at van der Horst, 47, since before he was old enough to understand lustful urges toward girls. His father, Wim, took the boy on his first hot air balloon ride when he was a precocious 10-year-old. The pair became hooked and the boy soon became more qualified to fly passengers in a balloon than drive them around in a car. He earned official licenses for both when he turned 16.

In fact, van der Horst’s history roughly parallels that of modern recreational ballooning. Both van der horst and modern ballooning were born in 1960, van der Horst in Flint, Michigan, and modern ballooning in Bruning, Nebraska, when innovator Ed Yost began experimenting with the light nylon balloon envelopes and propane-powered weed burners to heat the air and elevate the nylon. 

Since its earliest days, ballooning has been a pastime whose traditions are steeped in the proper luxuries of the idle rich. A bottle of champagne was on board the first flight on November 21,1783, near Paris when Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes became the first humans transported by a balloon before a mesmerized crowd that included King Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette and Benjamin Franklin. The champagne served a duel purpose. It could be used to celebrate a successful landing or to appease angry pitchfork-brandishing landowners who were spooked by the aerial invasion.

Today the ballooning is naturally intertwined with places like Napa and Sonoma. Many of the first gondolas were made, van der Horst says, from hardy grape vines culled from the vineyards.

“Wine country is a fabulous place for a balloon ride,” he says. “Napa is getting a little restrictive because the homes and vineyards have made it difficult to find a suitable place to park what is essentially a 10-story building that moves with the wind. But the Sonoma Valley still offers great views along the Russian River and you can catch glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco skyline, the Redwood forests and the Geyser Mountains.”

From high above, he doesn’t deny his is a daydream of a job, “but there’s more to running a balloon company than just flying a balloon. From May through October, it’s seven days a week with 12-18 hour days.”

When balloon business paperwork and the logistics get too pressing, he likes to dream of getting away from it all and -- surprise, surprise -- the options don’t include a vigorous day of  spelunking. No, his day dreams involve more balloon and less business. “Someday, I’d like to take a small balloon and barnstorm the country with my family, fly with other balloonists and see different countrysides at my leisure. Ballooning will always be an uplifting part of my life.”

He says 99.9 percent of the entire spread of humanity’s never experienced the resplendent peace of floating under a balloon. Although it’s a number he’s likely pulled out of thin air, the  hyperbole can be excused as an occupational liberty from a man who indulges in  daily flights of fancy. Still, his point persists.

It’s not uncommon for busy executives to spend two thirds of the year enduring hours of indignities as they thread through airport security corridors to take a plane trip that somehow manages to seem pedestrian. Maybe it would soothe a soul or two if for just once we all exchanged one of the most efficient forms of transportation for one of the least.

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