Hot Air Expeditions
As the sun begins to appear behind the jagged peaks of the McDowell Mountains outside Phoenix, balloon pilot Michael England and his crew connect a 10-foot wicker basket to a 250,000-cubic-foot balloon. Captain Mike leads group tours for Hot Air Expeditions high over the serene Sonoran Desert. The company has a dozen balloons for groups that can hold up to 12 pax, which can take off and land in the same general area around the same approximate time.
“Our larger groups are typically about 100 people, but we have worked with other companies to accommodate 800,” says England, who has been flying balloons for over 30 years. “Fifty years ago, I never thought that I’d be lucky enough to fly balloons around the desert.”
The takeoff is smooth, even for those of us willing to lay horizontal in the basket while the balloon inflates. As the hot air blows into the balloon, it moves vertically, bringing the basket up to standing position. With a signal from the crew, others jump in while Captain Mike cranks up the hot propane burners for takeoff.
In seconds, the group is lifted above the sandy desert floor and into the calm, clear sky while our hearts start to beat faster in anticipation of our journey. For about an hour, we gasp at the beauty of the mountain peaks and desert floor intersected with the Soguaro/Cholla cacti and old canal ravines.
During the ride, Captain Mike teaches us about Arizona wildlife and the French history of hot air balloons. The overall experience is magical as we drift into an easy peaceful feeling over the sun-baked earth. After a gentle landing, Mike provides each of us with the Certificate d’Ascension En Machine Aerostatique and recites the Balloonist’s Prayer.
“Traditionally, you’re supposed to kiss the ground when landing but I prefer kissing the rim of a champagne flute,” he says.
As Mike pours bubbly mimosas for us and the crew, Jeremy and Ellisson prepare a table for breakfast. The menu by James Beard Award winner Chef Vincent Guerithault consists of fresh handmade quiche, a cheese plate, fruit and a buttery chocolate croissant served on pretty crockery. It’s an altogether surreal experience sitting down with miles of endless desert surrounding you. Talk about a private location! There’s a very real sense of a team coming together and forming a strong bond and identity.
The desert meal is a relaxing end to our spirited morning flight and we all try to draw it out as long as possible. Planners can use outside catering for large scale events, and Captain Mike says Hot Air Expeditions will accommodate almost any special request.