An American flight above the Gers
This post has been generously contributed by Erin & Augusto, Los Angeles, California, USA - November 2017
It was ten years ago on our honeymoon that we took our first hot air balloon flight over Napa Valley in California. For our tenth wedding anniversary, we thought it would be lovely to experience another floating air adventure. As Southern Californians, we don't have a lot of beautiful fall colors, nor much fall weather, so we really hoped to experience both in France. Though we knew the weather might not permit a flight, we thought it would be worth trying, just in case there was an opening between anticipated rainy days during our visit. We noticed in our internet searches that many hot air balloon operations in France are limited to the sunny and warm months of the year--but there was Philippe and Balloons Over France! His website indicated he could fly year-round depending on weather, so we got in touch and he responded quickly that it was indeed a possibility.
Philippe's website also introduced us to the Gers region of France, and led us to recommended accommodations in the area. This is how we found Castel Pierre, an enchanting place to stay nearby. We thought even if the Weather Gods did not allow us to take flight as hoped, we would still be in the middle of autumn in a tranquil place where we could escape the hustle and bustle of big city life.
We arrived in the Gers the day before our flight window and Philippe stopped over at our hotel to introduce himself and discuss plans. He had spoken with the French military and confirmed a possible flight window for us the following morning, weather permitting. We agreed to depart for the launch site at a quarter to eight, with plans to be back on the ground by ten in the morning so the military could proceed with their planned exercises for the day. This was all sort of astounding to hear! We parted company that evening on the hopeful note that we would likely be able to fly.
The next day, Philippe pulled up to the hotel in a forest green Land Rover with his hot air balloon in tow. Philippe's right hand helper, Jean Paul, met us as well, and together we drove to the launch site a few kilometers away. The air was crisp and the ankle-high grasses were wet from the morning dew and previous day's rain. There in the early morning cold, Philippe and Jean Paul began to assemble the balloon. I went romping through the muddy field, taking photos with Philippe's very expensive Nikon, which he was kind enough to let us borrow. My boots were soaked almost immediately, and I didn't care, as I was wearing three pairs of socks in the spirit of the old Mark Twain adage (no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing).
Part of the adventure of flying in a hot air balloon is embracing the unknown, and savoring the anticipation and preparation leading up to the flight. Philippe involved us in that prep with simple directions (stand here, hold this), which was totally delightful and made us feel like a useful part of the process. He also instructed us about the launch and landing sequence, warned us not to be alarmed at the roaring volume of the equipment as we inflated the balloon, and all the while kept a smirk and an invincible sense of humor.
So there was much running around and tweaking and flame throwing and dwelling in the imminent possibility that the flight would indeed happen. And then it did.
"I need passengers!"
We climbed in and ditched a propane tank and we were off. I would describe that moment as full of glee and awe, like Christmas morning combined with the glimpse of a shooting star. Standing in a tiny balloon basket and floating into the sky on an autumn morning in rural France--what a day.
Lots of Easter eggs awaited us that morning--from drifting in unforeseen directions to the spectacular sunrise to the unexpected appearance of the Pyrenees. There were deer and howling dogs and school children waving excitedly. Rolling hills and charming villages--and trees! There were oranges, greens, reds, yellows… the autumn colors were fiery and vibrant. And there was the continuous game of "Ou est Jean Paul" as we spotted the now-tiny Land Rover following us across the countryside.
All in all, the flight was stunning. We even saw a faint rainbow shimmering through the mist just before our decent into a field adjacent to a lovely woman's garden. We waited in the field while Jean Paul inquired as to whether we could indeed float into the garden to disassemble the balloon. The lovely woman said of course, and then we floated across.
And then she brought us coffee. That's when you know you're in the Gers.
We are grateful for a totally unforgettable experience flying with Phillipe. This is a story we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. And hopefully, weather permitting, we'll be back.