This quick-witted balloon pilot averted disaster near Lakeville

One thing you don’t want to hear from your pilot when you’re in a hot air balloon 100 feet above the Sonoma County vineyards is, “That’s not supposed to happen.”

“It got everyone’s attention,” Sonoma Ballooning pilot Jeff Spear said Friday. “They were sort of lost in thought, looking at the vines.”

If not for Spear’s swift aerial actions near Lakeville on Thursday morning, those vineyards would have fallen on him and his 12 passengers very quickly.

The ship’s burners, which shoot jets of propane-heated air into the balloon to keep it aloft, suddenly detached from their moorings and hung askew.

They were only minutes away from their intended landing spot, but without the burners the air in the balloon would quickly cool in the freezing morning air and send the pilot and his passengers crashing to earth. .

But Spear wasn’t about to let that happen, and her work in the next frozen minute was worthy of Sully Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who guided her crippled plane safely to an emergency landing. in the Hudson River in 2009.

With the help of a few passengers—including a firefighter—Spear grabbed the 50-pound, three-burner unit in her arms and manually steered it into the balloon’s mouth.

It provided enough lift for Spear to calmly place the boat on a road crossing the rural property. No one has suffered as much as an owie. Balloon chasers quickly rushed to help customers disembark.

It all happened so fast that the passengers had little time to agonize.

“I was still admiring the beauty before I realized what was going on,” said one, Ani Miyasaki, who lives in Sonoma and runs the wine club for Three Fat Guys Wines.

“But Jeff was so calm the whole time, I didn’t panic until after I landed. He kept everyone calm and focused on his task. If we had had a different pilot, I don’t know if I could say that.

That sentiment seemed to be unanimous among the runners, Miyasaki noted. “Everyone stayed for the champagne toast,” she said.

Spear, who estimates to have made between 1,900 and 2,000 flights in a decade while flying balloons, had never faced an equipment malfunction of this magnitude. The most he usually has to worry about, he said, is a small pinhole in the bottom of the ball.

“It’s super rare,” Spear, 35, said. “A balloon is the safest form of aviation. Nothing like this has ever happened to me. We’re working with the FAA and the manufacturers (Kubicek Balloons, a Czech company), trying to figure out what’s going on.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Friday it had not yet received an incident report on Spear’s emergency landing.

Hot air ballooning is as much an art as it is a science. Wind patterns can be difficult to measure accurately from the ground and can change during flight. To compensate, Spear said, the equipment has built-in redundancies. For example, the burner unit is fixed in several ways. Not all failed Thursday morning. So the burners clung limply, rather than banging on the bottom of the basket or collapsing to the floor.

A balloon pilot, like a fixed-wing pilot, is licensed by the FAA. Despite the strangeness of Thursday’s airborne event, Spear said it was addressed during her training.

“We train for everything,” he said. “All things possible.”

Still, Spear was perhaps uniquely suited for the job.

“Because he also has experience as an airplane pilot and once served in the Coast Guard, his knowledge of weather and topography is exceptional to say the least,” said Lisa Strom. , marketing director of Sonoma Ballooning, in a written response.

As Strom pointed out, Spear has a family history in aviation, and he’s flown in complex settings like the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, an annual event in New Mexico that puts 500 balloons in the air for nine days. .

Thursday’s early morning flight gave no indication of difficulty.

“The conditions were fantastic,” Spear said. “It’s a great time of year to fly. The sunrises were epic.

Spear was launched from the Sonoma Ballooning hangar at Sonoma Skypark in Schellville that morning, and winds blew the ship west over the hills towards Petaluma. It suited Miyasaki. She had already ridden with Spear; this time the ball had sailed east toward Napa.

“It was so beautiful,” Miyasaki said of Thursday’s experience. “I kind of forgot how green and lush the hills are there.”

Spear was completing the 5-mile flight, lining up the ball for its descent, when the situation suddenly deteriorated. No one at Sonoma Ballooning was sure which vineyard Spear landed on Friday. But it was near Lake Tolay Regional Park off Stage Gulch Road in the Petaluma Gap. It could have been the scene of a tragedy. Instead it was just a little adrenaline rush for 13 people.

The risky moment had no chance of dampening Spear’s enthusiasm for piloting.

“Every day I wake up and it’s different,” he said. “Different people, different crews, different landowners. A completely different flight. I always said we needed a reality TV show. Have you ever seen Under Deck? They did a TV show about motor yachts. I would say we have more elements. We have passengers from all over the world and we get to know them in two or three hours.

Miyasaki said she would love to go hot air ballooning again, as did her companion, who was on his first hot air balloon trip Thursday morning. Miyasaki just had to explain to the friend that it wasn’t a typical ride.

“The last time I flew,” she said, “it was a lot quieter.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.