A Doug's Life: "Oh, Would You Like to Ride in My Beautiful Balloon..."

hot air balloon shadow
And I thought I was afraid of heights.

Well yes, I'm still reluctant to stand on the top step of a ladder. And no, I wouldn't jump out of a hot air balloon basket at 7,000 feet, as a guy did right before my eyes today.

(Yes, he had a parachute).

But you know what? Floating high above the Menifee Valley for more than an hour really didn't scare me at all. Actually, it was a breathtaking experience that gave me a new perspective on the landscape, a better understanding of just how vast our world is, and an incredible sense of peace.

It all started before dawn, in an open field not far from Perris Valley Airport. There we were -- nine adventurous souls, surrounded by tumbleweeds, watching our pilot, a two-man ground crew and a "jumper" prepare for liftoff.

Our hosts at Above the Rest Hot Air Ballooning had thought of everything. Dawn Chapton, owner of the company, had booked our flight and checked the weather conditions the night before. Our three-man crew, headed by pilot Phil Brandt, had driven us out to a remote location where obstacles were few and the wind conditions were favorable.

The wind, you see, has everything to do with hot air ballooning. Before leaving the company's home base, where it also provides skydiving services, Brandt had sent up two small helium balloons to check Mother Nature's steering system.

So there we were, seeing nothing but sagebrush and hearing only the wake-up call of a lonely rooster somewhere out beyond the boulders. Brandt, after joking that he was on his third week on the job, admitted he's been doing this for 22 years, with more than 5,000 hours in the air. Or, as he said, "since God's dog was a puppy."

I decided that was good enough for me, so with my daughters Jill and Megan, I waited patiently for the crew to roll out the multi-colored, 210,000-cubic-foot nylon balloon and fill it with air.

"Remember," I told myself. "You wanted to do this." Well, at least I said I did, in a column about the wild blue yonder above Menifee. But that was back in December, while writing in the comfort of my den. This was today, and the balloon was filling up real fast.

Sitting on the ground in front of me, stuffing his 22-year-old body into a pressurized jumpsuit, was Brent Witt, a local boy who was going to further entertain us by skydiving out of our balloon basket from several thousand feet up. Better him than me, I figured. Obviously, the guy has nerves of steel. Less than an hour before, he had been fast asleep when Brandt called, asking if he felt like jumping this morning. I mean, the dude was there before the balloon was filled.

One must get quite a rush from this skydiving thing, I thought. But there was little time to ponder the situation. Suddenly it was time to cram 11 of us -- nine passengers, Brandt the pilot and Witt the jumper -- into a basket roughly 9 feet by 5 feet.

One quickly forgets about the close quarters once Brandt fires enough propane-fueled hot air blasts up into the enormous balloon. Quickly, you're thankful there are other bodies close by as you slowly begin to lift off the earth and rise into the morning sky.

At first, you laugh at the people, barking dogs and moving cars as they begin to fade away, soon to be mere ants on the landscape. Then you rise into and finally above the clouds, witnessing a scene most of us have seen only through the window of a commercial airliner.

Up there, truly in God's country, there is nothing but peace. No traffic jams, no lawn to mow, no laundry to pick up. Just clouds and sunlight as far as you can see, the only sound being the occasional blast of the burners to give us more altitude.

As Brandt explained, Above the Rest operates these flights year-round, holidays included, weather permitting. He estimates that the company carries about 3,500 passengers a year across the skies, leaving from locations in Perris, Temecula and Palm Springs. The company features rides to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, wedding ceremonies and more, capped off by champagne and snacks on the ground afterward.

Brandt's job as pilot involves managing the blasts of propane -- about 55 gallons' worth for the entire trip -- "spinning" or rotating the balloon by pulling on ropes above him, monitoring our position both visually and with a GPS system, and communicating with the ground crew.

After all, they have to know where to pick us up. The wind will have something to say about the landing spot.

Meanwhile, at about 7,000 feet -- 8,400 feet above sea level, Brandt points out -- Witt pulls on his goggles, steps up onto the top rail of the basket, waves goodbye and jumps out. Looking like some kind of superhero with a spread-eagle, free-fall posture in his winged jumpsuit, Witt opens the parachute about halfway down, just as he begins to disappear into the clouds.

Alrighty, then. Where's that handrail?

As we continue drifting southeast, we pass over Highway 74 and notice Diamond Valley Lake off in the distance. Through breaks in the clouds, we can see horses wandering around corrals, freshly plowed fields, new housing developments, bright blue swimming pools, even a couple people up on their rooftops, waving as we begin to descend.

Finally, after nearly an hour and 20 minutes of heavenly bliss, we float down to a vacant lot in the unfinished portion of a housing tract a bit southeast of Heritage High School. A couple of slight bumps and we're down, having traveled almost five miles from our takeoff spot.

As he begins to help the ground crew pack up the equipment for the van ride back to the base, Brandt is asked what keeps him motivated to do this every day.

"It's not the same -- ever," he said. "I've never done two trips that are exactly the same. And it's the reactions... usually, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for people."

Maybe, maybe not. I think I just might take to the skies again sometime. I'm not saying I'll be ready to strap on the chute if Brent Witt sleeps through the wake-up call next time, but I'll certainly be ready to pile into the basket again and take off into the wild blue yonder.

Above the Rest Hot Air Ballooning and Skydiving
Reservations: (888) 364-7421

above the clouds


  1. From Phil Brandt, Chief Pilot at Above The Rest Ballooning and Skydiving. Thank you Doug for your wonderful and eloquent article. It was truly a business doing pleasure with you. Get it?

  2. Funny, Phil. Thanks for your sense of humor, great information and wonderful piloting skills.

  3. Sounds exhilarating. Wish I had the courage to follow suit.