Morning dawns on a field bordered by residential homes a little over a mile north of Winters. Eight passengers approach the launch site where a 250,000 cubic foot, 115 foot high, 85 foot wide hot air balloon will take them high above Capay Valley farmlands on one of the first perfect flying days of the year.
As the crew with Yolo Ballooning Adventures prepares the aircraft for its scheduled 90-minute trip, general manager Mike Veliz looks out over the launch site dotted with half a dozen other balloons from various Northern California companies readying for takeoff. “The best part of this job,” says Veliz, a Woodland native, “is getting to watch the sunrise every day.”
Indeed, there are many breathtaking moments during a day in the life of the only company regularly flying over Yolo County. Yolo Ballooning Adventures, with its main office in Dixon, is one of four separate balloon and repair shop companies owned by Gabriel Gundling in Lake Tahoe and Northern California.
While Veliz admits during the briefing that he’s “terrified of heights,” he says it’s negated by the calming effects of being in the balloon basket while serenely floating several thousand feet above the manicured farmlands, rural roads and residential areas of Yolo County’s Capay Valley. “There’s a sense of security while you’re standing in the basket,” he says. “There’s no g-force like in an airplane, no sudden movements, unless somebody moves around.”
Veliz’s roots in hot air ballooning go back to age 15 in 2001, when he started a summer job at the then California Ballooning Services doing maintenance and inspections. He took his first flight lesson three years later, working there for 11 years before the company was bought by Gundling.
“I worked at that repair facility in Woodland all the way through high school,” Veliz says. “I went to UC Davis, graduated, and Gabe offered me the opportunity to run this particular (repair) business once he acquired it.”
The actual balloon rides didn’t begin, however, until Veliz started them in 2012 as a way to fly more. “I was at a shop, fixing other people’s equipment and not enjoying ballooning,” he says. “We picked up a balloon to just do flights on weekends, and it just kind of snowballed.”
Though 2023 started slow because of a lack of weather-related safe flying days, Veliz says a normal year consists of flying about 500 passengers using three balloon basket sizes, from a small two-seater to 10.
Flight days start and finish in the tasting room of Turkovich Family Wines in downtown Winters, with a check-in meeting around 6 a.m., to the flight wrap-up and champagne toast about four hours later. Veliz forged a “handshake deal” with the Turkovich family to use the facility and its landing and takeoff fields eight years ago, and the close relationship continues.
Veliz says Yolo Ballooning plans to double its flight schedule in the coming years while continuing to use smaller balloons than most companies.
“What makes us different from other companies is that we fly smaller groups so that we can give individualized attention to our passengers,” he says. “Instead of having 20 people in one basket, we have up to 10. That seems to be the sweet spot for our pilot, where we can still have a conversation with passengers and allow them to enjoy their experience fully.”
Veliz and Ignacio Lopez, who also repairs balloons for the company, share pilot duties on flights. Lopez also got his start with the company in the Dixon shop before he started flying in 2016.
“I learned to fly by making hot air balloons; there’s no better way to learn by making something yourself,” Lopez tells passengers during the flight, frequently pausing while releasing a noisy burst of flame from the vessel’s burners, creating hot air to allow the balloon to rise.
During each flight, a GoPro camera extends from the basket, capturing individual wide angle and close-up photos of passengers inside. A slide show is viewed at Turkovich during the flight wrap session, and by the end of the day, the photos are made available to download from a Dropbox site.
Back at Turkovich, the statistics for the one hour, 36-minute flight are analyzed. Every part of the flight is tracked and then pulled into Google Earth for a three-dimensional view. On this trip, maximum altitude hit 3,200 feet, with the high wind speed hitting 15 miles per hour. The balloon traveled nine miles from the takeoff to landing spot.
Veliz says Yolo Ballooning passengers stay with the crew throughout the day, from the drive to the launch site, observing the intensive setup and breakdown process.
“When I started the business, I wanted to make sure that our passengers got the same type of experience that our friends and family would get if they came out with us for fun,” Veliz says. “There’s so much more to ballooning than just the flight.”
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