By J.T. MacMillan
Before the first light of dawn on a chilly November day, our small group of weekend adventurers were shuttled into rural wine country, east of Temecula, California. We huddled around our coffees in the dark, with murmurings about what the heck we were doing out in the middle of nowhere before sunrise on a Saturday morning.
There was some nervous excitement of what was to come.
With a birthday gift certificate close to expiration and wintery weather approaching, we were finally taking advantage of our "A Grape Escape Hot Air Balloon Adventure." I had been in a hot air balloon once before, back in the 90s when bungee-jumping was a waning fad. The local paper I worked for asked a reporter and I to do a story and photos on the latest trend: bungee-jumping from a hot air balloon. It was my craziest act and greatest adrenaline rush ever, all in the name of "journalism." By comparison, today was going to be a more refined experience, as smooth as a fine merlot - to be sipped, not gulped.
Unlike Del Mar, where the balloon action starts in late afternoon, here it's a pre-dawn thing. It's all about the calm, and avoiding the late afternoon winds that run through the Temecula Valley. So here we were, a trusting bunch, watching the sun rise and enjoying our coffee while crews spread out massive blue tarps on the graded dirt lot.
(Click to enlarge photos, top right corner x to exit)
As my fellow adventurers focused on the spectacle of acres of billowing nylon, giant fans, baskets and shooting flames, my eyes turned upward. Some balloons from the other companies were already lifting into an unforgettable sky. With the benefit of a telephoto lens, I was able to see and capture what everyone else seemed to be missing. And within just a few minutes, the light and clouds changed and the moment was gone.
As our balloons slowly started taking shape and the anchor line tethered to the trailer tightened, the pilots gestured to start climbing on and into the large tilting baskets. "We need ballast," they said as the hot air pushed the balloons skyward. We scrambled awkwardly onto the footholds and climbed in.
Soon, with the roar of the burners we eased into the dawn sky. Then it was quiet, and the valley slowly revealed itself.
(Click to enlarge photos)
The wind took us mostly where it wanted to for an hour, over palatial homes and acres of vineyards and horse ranches. But with more than 30 years of experience ballooning all over the world, our pilot seemed to be able to coax the balloon a bit - higher elevations to catch one wind current, lower to catch another. He was a "balloon whisperer." Sometimes we floated just 15 feet above the fields, and at one point reached a chilly 4,000 feet.
After a while, we became curious about the landing part of this adventure, which we really hadn't concerned ourselves with until this point. As we listened to the two-way radio conversation between our pilot and chase crew, it became apparent that landing a hot air balloon is more of an art than a science. Still, as we drifted over our final vineyard and towards a random restaurant parking lot, there they were, ready to receive us and guide the basket to a comfortable landing.
Our hot air balloon experience took roughly two hours, with about an hour total spent in the air. For me, paired with the phenomenal morning sky, it was one of the most photo-rich 90 minutes of shooting I've experienced. Below is a collection short video snippets I was able to grab between frames and piece together.
J.T. MacMillan is a long-time San Diego-based photographer who got his start in metro-newspaper work and has been providing editorial, commercial, portrait and event photography services to some of San Diego’s most recognized public and private agencies for 27 years. To learn more and see other samples of our work click on the links below:
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