The morning was supposed to be serene and idyllic with a group of restaurant writers, bloggers and foodies soaring high over Napa’s gorgeous wine country.
Instead, Joanne Sasvari, a 40-something freelance writer for the Vancouver Sun, and her group were forced to make what she called an “unexpected” landing, before being rescued by the California Highway Patrol. That's because the winds picked up at about 8 a.m. Tuesday, making it difficult for the pilot to land normally.
Still, the entire ordeal took all of about 45 minutes, she said, and no one was injured after the balloon got stranded in a slough.
“We were all giggling,” Sasvari said. “The pilot was amazing. He never let on how risky it was. We just saw he was sweating.”
She wouldn't call the landing an “emergency” one. Rather, because of the winds, she described what happened as “very unexpected.”
Sasvari said the pilot thought he was landing on a road, but "it was actually an island totally surrounded by water and mud."
Fellow passenger Daenna Van Mulligen added: "We realized at that point that ... we coudn't take off again because we didn't have enough fuel, and that we needed to get a ride."
Luckily, Tom Lipsey, a CHP flight manager, noticed the hot air balloon as he took his helicopter out from a hangar at the CHP Air Operations headquarters in Napa. The balloon was "quite a bit south of where we normally see them towards the river," he said.
Shortly after flying over the scene, Lipsey diverted Jim Andrews, a CHP helicopter pilot who was conducting a training session near Napa County's Lake Berryessa, to rescue the passengers.
"When you actually see the helicopter show up, that's actually pretty scary," said a relieved Sasvari. "That it could've been scary."
All the passengers, who are on a weeklong Robert Mondavi wine and tasting trip from Asia, Germany, Quebec, Italy and beyond, were back on the ground by 9 a.m.
It was perfect timing.
No one had eaten breakfast before the 5 a.m. hotel departure, Sasvari said.
And so, everyone was ready for something to eat – and a sip or two of sparkling wine – at the Domain Chandon winery upon their safe return.
Napa Valley Balloons, the company that owns the hot air balloon, thanked the CHP in a statement Tuesday.
It said in part: "As you know, balloons go where the wind takes them. We encountered some unusual winds this morning, which meant the pilot had to find an unusual landing location, near the Napa Slough."
Officials said the passengers were "absolutely safe at all times" and the balloon is "ready to fly again tomorrow."