SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — There is only one company in the entire world that launches and lands hot air balloons from a boat, and that company is Lake Tahoe Balloons. The one-of-a-kind boat is known as the Tahoe Flyer and it’s the world’s smallest aircraft carrier.
The Flyer is just 120 feet long and 28 feet wide. It is a tricky task to inflate and fly a balloon from a boat, but pilot Sheldon Grauberger says when you fly from the water, you avoid a number of ballooning challenges found on land.
“Negative landowners and powerlines. When you take off from the water, you avoid both those things,” said Grauberger.
Captain Greg Collard says when ship was built in 1992, the design had to get approval from two different government agencies.
“It is inspected by both the Coast Guard and the FAA because we have an aircraft on board,” said Collard.
It takes a lot of heat to inflate the 110-foot-tall balloon and lift the 10 to 12 passengers. According Grauberger, one of the balloon's burners could take a 1,500-square-foot house from 40 degrees to 80 degrees in three seconds, and that heat will take passengers high enough to see a huge swath of eastern California.
“You can see all the way to Yosemite and then all the way to Mt. Lassen on a clear day,” said Grauberger.
Wind directions change at different heights, so in order to steer, Grauberger raises or lowers the balloon by adding heat or letting it out through a hole in the top of the balloon. Throughout the 50-minute ride passengers rise up and down several times.
You get an unforgettable view of the lake at 5,000 feet. Then on the way down, you get to experience what is called a "splash and dash" where the bottom of the basket touches the water.
“I got someone’s ankles wet, but never beyond than the ankles,” laughed Grauberger.
After the basket is done drip-drying, it’s time to land and Captain Collard and pilot Gruberger have to work together to make it happen.
“It's actually the boat catching the balloon because the crew pulls them down,” said Collard.
Lake Tahoe Balloons claims to make the softest balloon landings in the business because the basket is not bouncing or crashing into an open field.
After landing on the boat, the real work begins. Putting away the balloon is a bit of organized chaos.
It takes the entire crew to deflate the balloon and to keep it from rolling into the water. The Tahoe Flyer is equipped with a series of extension poles with nets that help guide the balloon fabric to the center.
Once the balloon is put away, it's time to pop some bottles of champagne. The entire boat gets a celebratory glass and a scenic boat ride back to the marina.
Flights with Lake Tahoe Balloons take place from mid-May through October. Advance reservations are required.
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