Sunday, Aug. 2, 2009 | When Pete Brunner is in his Solana Beach office, he keeps the front door open, the back door open, and an eye out the window, tracking the pace of the marine layer.
He starts thinking about cloud cover and wind patterns at 10 a.m. In between meetings and appointments, he checks weather websites and watches the clock, waiting for the end of the day.
Brunner is an insurance broker by day, a hot air balloon pilot by night. This peculiar balance he’s been striking for 20 years.
One of his jobs is a means to an end. The other, the one he loves, is the end.
“It could be that I take a vacation at the end of every day,” he says.
A contract pilot for Del Mar’s Skysurfer Balloon Co., Brunner flies every day, weather- — and passengers — permitting. He’d flown nine days straight as of Thursday. Arriving at the insurance office as early as 7 in the morning, Brunner heads out around 5 p.m. to meet passengers and get ready for the flight. He won’t be done for four more hours at least.
Brunner earns about $300 each time he flies. He doesn’t get paid if too few passengers show up or the weather is bad, which happened many days in June. But for him, the money is an afterthought. The 48-year-old is obsessed with ballooning.
“It’s an addiction, it satisfies a part of my day,” he says. “The insurance stuff — that’s really boring. I’ve got to have that offset, that delta.”
Brunner is a veteran, a pilot for two decades. There are at least a half-dozen balloon companies operating in the county, each with their own crews of three or four pairs of hands to lift baskets, unfurl balloons, drag fans, and drive vans to follow the flight’s trajectory.
Around this familiar, postcard-worthy panorama of brightly colored balloons soaring over the North County coastline there exists a mini-economy. It’s a sector founded on harnessing wind energy, soaking up San Diego’s good weather fortunes and exploiting striking coastline sunsets. As Brunner’s hands control the flames and heat the air in the balloon, making it lighter than the air around it, he participates nightly in a scene that typifies this place.
When passengers arrive a little after 5 p.m. one recent day at their meeting place, a shopping center in Del Mar, Brunner is blowing up and releasing helium balloons, tracking their paths and progress with a compass from the ground. It is quiet and warm. A few different types and colors of clouds punctuate the blue sky. The passengers mill around, speaking softly to each other.
Brunner stands off to the side, away from the passengers, some there to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays, others tourists in San Diego. He dresses casually, a sticker for a Braeburn apple stuck to his t-shirt. He wears hiking boots with red shoelaces. His hair and goatee are salt-and-pepper. Black sporty sunglasses rest on his forehead.
Brunner is preoccupied and aloof, seemingly consumed with gathering bits and snatches of the wind activity in the layers of air above him, using those to plot the balloon’s path as he superimposes the wind patterns in his mind on a map of North County. The balloon has no steering; the pilot must match it with prevailing winds in order to plan its destination.
He tries to land in the same place each day, so the launch spot is what he’s calculating now. The flights leave anywhere from Carlsbad to Sorrento Valley, depending from which direction the prevailing winds are blowing.
Brunner decides to launch from a vacant lot in Carmel Valley between two hotels.
Hopping into the van with the license plate SKY SRF5, Brunner pops a can of Red Bull, pulls out a pita sandwich and drives to the launch spot, pulling a flat trailer that totes the brown wicker basket, fans, tarps and the balloon itself. There, he sends up another balloon to watch the winds.
To fly the balloon, Brunner must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for a “lighter than air” craft. But there is no waiting room for him to strut out of before taking the helm; he must help his crew with the grunt work of setting the craft up.
After laying tarps out on the ground, the crew starts to tug the balloon out of its pouch, revealing bright yellows and blues. They attach ropes to the basket and wheel two high-powered fans over to the side.
In the meantime, two other companies have chosen the same spot, bringing their own passengers, balloons, fans and propane tanks.
Brunner pulls his passengers together and talks through the flight, explaining the balloon’s geometry and hinging lines. It’s easy to lose Brunner in his descriptions of dense and ambient air and other concepts of physics that as a passenger, you’re glad he understands, but doubt you’d be able to repeat in any coherent fashion. The only control, he says, is to rotate the balloon through its vents at the equator, to help the balloon climb or descend.
It takes 10 minutes to inflate the balloon on its side, and about 90 seconds to stand it straight up by heating the air. Passengers hoist themselves into the basket. Brunner is occupied above their heads, pulling valves that release eight- to nine-foot plumes of flame into the balloon. The flames make the air inside the balloon hot, and thus less dense than the air outside of the balloon. Finally, the air densities have changed enough that the balloon is ready to lift off.
The crew lets the ropes off of the balloon and it lifts off the ground. A young girls’ soccer team stands in the parking lot of the hotel next door, mouths gaping.
For most of the first 10 minutes of the flight, Brunner pulls levers to pump flames into the balloon. The hotter the air gets, the further it rises, tapping into wind currents on the way.
The crew on the ground packs up the chase van. They’ll keep in touch with Brunner via radio and drive to the landing spot to meet the balloon when it descends.
Up in the air, Brunner’s balloon bumps into another balloon that took off from the same spot. Brunner greets the event with calm, calling it a “kiss.” The balloons eventually choose different paths. About 2,600 feet up, Brunner offers his guests some sparkling wine and soda.
The sight is astounding. From up here, freeway traffic on the opening weekend at the Del Mar racetrack seems a million miles away instead of a few thousand feet. The sun peeks in and out of clouds over the coastline, beginning to turn them shades of pink and orange and violet. The trip will be about three miles, takeoff to landing, and last about an hour.
As the balloon bobs along, Brunner occasionally infuses it with heat. His terse conversational tone from before the launch has been replaced with an effusive tour guide with more information in his mind than could possibly be shared before landing. He points out the history of the racetrack and the value of the real estate in Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe and Pacific Highlands Ranch. He points out golf courses and clubhouses.
“If we’re too close, we’ll yell ‘fore,’” he jokes.
And then he begins to describe how the balloon will land, with a descent of about 1,000 feet a minute. To land, Brunner allows the air inside the balloon to become gradually cooler, firing flames into it less and less frequently. He shows the passengers where they’ll be landing — a prospect that, without steering, seems ambitious.
There’s a mesa near Rancho Santa Fe that looks like an alligator that Picasso would paint, he explains. The target: right between the eyes. He usually makes it.
To land, passengers brace their knees and backs against the basket, holding onto the handles. The landing is crude, “Fred-Flintstone-like,” he says. Stopping relies on friction between the basket and the ground. The sky is pink and indigo by now; a sliver of the moon illuminates the rough ground.
He has had a couple of complicated landings, Brunner explains as the crew comes to meet the balloon and deflate it. His most harrowing? An emergency landing in the ocean 10 years ago after an unpredictable wind pattern started carrying his balloon swiftly west. The passengers were wet but not underwater. The event that garnered some major media attention and ruined a balloon.
Over another round of beverages, while the crew begins to pack up, Brunner tells story after story to the passengers who’ve shared the basket with him that day. It’s hard to tell this is the same taciturn person who calculated the trip route just hours earlier. He describes one of his first bosses in specialty construction who taught him principles of architectural fabric. He recounts the history of ballooning, pronouncing French names with a perfect accent and regaling passengers with the science of discovering this form of aviation.
In the dusk light on the dirt mesa in the middle of Rancho Santa Fe, he lifts a disposable cup of sparkling wine and recites for his passengers the balloonists’ toast:
The winds have welcomed you with softness
The sun has blessed you with its warm hands
You have flown so high and so well
That God has joined you in your laughter
And set you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
He helps the crew finish loading up the trailer and vans and drives out of the vacant lot and back to Del Mar, finished for another night.