Ryan Wood’s stories are filled with hot air. Literally. The Truckee resident has many tales to tell, most of them beginning with flying in a hot air balloon.
How many people can say they landed a hot air balloon on one side of the road in Peru because if they’d descended on the other side of it, they would’ve landed in a field of Bolivian land mines? How many people, in the still silence of the early morning hours, have heard the eerie sound of cracking ice beneath the basket without the fear of falling in frigid waters? How many people can say they actually even own a hot air balloon?
Back in high school in Tuolumne, Ryan’s buddy Justin Kinsinger had a grandfather, Robert Kinsinger, who was an avid hot air balloonist. A retired vice president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Robert had discovered ballooning in his 30s, a passion which would send him flying through 84 countries over the course of his life. Although he had several grandchildren, Justin was the only one who shared his grandfather’s intrigue in the obscure sport.
It was when Justin decided to make ballooning the focus of a senior project that Ryan discovered he, too, had a growing interest in the niche hobby.
“I was always willing to help,” said Ryan, explaining that launching a hot air balloon is not a one-man job. It takes a minimum of three, preferably four, people to make it happen. All of them assist with inflating the balloon to get it off the ground. More importantly, “you need one in the basket and one to drive the truck to chase it,” he said.
All in all, it takes from a half to a full hour to set up, but the process really begins before Ryan even leaves the house. In the pre-dawn hours, he’ll wake up and check in with the FAA’s Flight Services line to hear current weather conditions and inform authorities that he’ll be flying in the area. With Truckee airport in close proximity to the Prosser Reservoir — Ryan’s preferred local takeoff point — it’s a courtesy to let officials know he’ll be flying in the area. When it comes to air traffic, hot air balloons have the right of way over airplanes, but balloons must yield to gliders.
Ballooning is becoming more regulated under the Federal Aviation Administration’s VFR (Visual Flight Regulations). There has to be a minimum visibility of 3 miles and balloons are not permitted to fly higher than 12,000 feet, the same regulations imposed on pilots of small airplanes. The ideal time for takeoff is usually around sunrise, when winds are at their most calm. On an average weather day, surface winds tend to run from 0-2 mph from the hours of 2 to 10 a.m. If they were to exceed 5 mph, it would be difficult to keep the balloon standing up.
Monitoring weather conditions both on the surface and in the atmosphere is crucial.
“I don’t want to be up there when it goes from 0 to 17 [mph],” Ryan said. Although there was that one time …
On the rare occasion when things might be a bit more unpredictable, Ryan tries to stay local. However, he has to be ready to act on the fly because — quite literally — he never knows where the winds could take him. A few years back, erratic winds pushed him into the Glenshire subdivision in Truckee. From above he was able to spot a satisfactory landing location. Though not ideal, the best option was to come down in a cul-de-sac. The challenge, however, was to keep the balloon standing on account of power lines that ran along the roadway.
“I had to vent as hard as I could,” he said, recalling letting air out of the balloon, but taking care to not release too much. “I was willing to have a hard landing on pavement if that meant having the balloon stay inflated and not blow over the power lines. We came down hard — but I kept the balloon standing.”
For someone who’s afraid of heights, it’s quite the ironic choice of hobby.
“He’s just calm,” said Rebekah Ramos, Ryan’s girlfriend who is now working at getting her pilot’s license so she can fly as well. “He’s able to look and think and decide.”
Rebekah recalled one of her favorite flights over Boca Reservoir. The temperature in the upper atmosphere was -10 Fahrenheit. “Fog tried to form but it froze,” she said. “There were little twinkling lights everywhere.” It made for a magical memory, like during the warmer months when Ryan will dip the basket into the water. But if that cold air should settle, the basket can’t land and will be bounced back up off the ground.
“Flying up here [in the Sierra Nevada] has made me a better pilot,” said Ryan, explaining that far less variable weather conditions found down in areas of lower elevation make for more predictable flying. Sometimes he’ll set off with the goal of getting from point A to point B, like the time he flew 120 miles from Blue Canyon to Fernley. Although the journey was made at 97 mph, “when you’re up to speed, it’s totally calm,” Ryan said. And the only noise you hear is from the burners that keep the balloon aloft, which on occasion he has shut off for as much as 30 seconds, to hear only the whispers of the winds.
In the early days of ballooning — the first flight dates back to 1782 in France — it was believed that the smoke from burning wet cedar was what set the balloon up in the air. However, it was later discovered that the heat was responsible, and balloons of today are lifted with propane. The hotter the weather, the more fuel has to be burned, making 40 gallons last anywhere from an hour and 45 minutes to three hours. Balloons were originally made of paper-mache and were about 30,000 cubic feet in size. That’s one-third the size of present-day hobby balloons, the upper portion of which is made of ripstop nylon, the lower of Nomex ripstop nylon which is more fire-retardant.
“It’s the cheapest way to achieve flight,” Ryan said. “You have fabric, fire, and a wicker basket. It’s easy to get into a meditative flow state because a lot is out of your control.”
Perhaps the most important part of any flight, however, is the Champagne. When an early balloon landed in French farmland, locals thought it was a UFO and attacked it. Nobles who were following the balloon soon arrived on the scene bearing Champagne, and from then on it was considered unlucky to not have bubbly on board.
While ballooning has taken Ryan on many worldwide adventures, landing him in places like Yosemite, Chile, and Thailand, there’s no place like home. Much of his flying time is spent departing from Prosser, seeing were the winds blow. And in the early morning hours, you just might catch a glimpse of the vivid primary colors of his balloon hovering against the backdrop of the brilliant Tahoe blue sky.
“It’s the slowest adrenaline rush you can have,” Ryan laughed. “Sometimes I’m just along for the ride and going to end up where I end up.”