Hot Air Fills Wine Country Skies

Lofty pursuits also prove colorful

As the sun rose, so did the balloons -- some of them seven stories tall. The Dawn Patrol greeted the sunrise, the first of 30 balloons to show for an annual ballooning festival in Windsor, Calif., north of San Francisco

This year, the twentieth annual Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Festival got off to a late start, with the sky already lit as the first balloon took off. But what 20-year-old isn't a bit slow to get going?

The balloons are first filled up with cold air, and then pilots fill the balloons up with raw, non-preheated propane to make them rise. A circular section at the top of the balloon that is a vent, used to create rapid descents if needed during flight.

One balloon was made to look like the Energizer Bunny, reaching twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.

A lot of people came out for the event, which cost $5 for a ticket in advance, and $8 for a day-of ticket.

This was the first year the Mayflower balloon made it to the Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Festival and it was also a sponsor.

Kevin Knapp has been flying in hot-air balloons for 19 years.  He learned the skill during his 28 years in the Army, and he now works full-time flying the Mayflower balloon at a different festival each week.  "Home is the road," says Knapp. "If I'm not at a balloon festival, I'm visiting a friend or on vacation."

Knapp let me stand inside the balloon while he filled it with hot air.  To see pictures from that, check out the slide show.

It may surprise some how small of an operation owning a hot-air balloon is. One trailer advertised for sale everything a balloonist needs for $5,000.

After the Dawn Patrol and the Mayflower lifted off, the rest of the 30-plus balloons started filling up and taking off from two different locations in Keiser Park in Windsor.

As WWJD from Grant's Pass, OR took off, pilot Bill Woodhead leaned over the side of the basket and said, "Oh, I'm going this way, wait, now I'm going this way.  This is the difference when you can't steer... God steers!"

“After three years of being fogged in, we have a perfect day for the twentieth anniversary of the Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Festival,” proclaimed the announcer at the event on Saturday morning over the loud speaker.

While it was tough getting up that early, the event was pretty much wrapped up by 8 a.m., a perfect time to take a nap.

This fun, family-friendly event. Those who want to stick around a little longer can ride in one of the hot-air balloons 50-100 feet up for only $5 each. That's much cheaper than the $200 per person that most balloons charge for a ride, albeit one that would take you higher and last longer.

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