VALLEJO (KPIX 5) — A dozen people had to be rescued from a marsh near Vallejo Sunday morning after the hot air balloon they were riding in was forced to make an unexpected landing.
According to first responders, the pilot of the balloon told them the winds were blowing up to 50 miles per hour during the flight, which was pushing the balloon toward power lines. The pilot landed the balloon in a marsh area near Skaggs Island. When the tides started to rise, a helicopter from CHP Air Ops Golden Gate in Napa was called in to help.
“This balloon had a bright yellow balloon on it, so that stood out pretty well against the brown background it was laying down on,” said CHP helicopter pilot Rich Jones. Officer Jones was the first one to spot the downed hot air balloon and recorded everything he was seeing using the on-board cameras.
“We were able to use our camera system and zoom in and start getting a headcount and we could see everyone was up on their feet and it didn’t appear that anyone was injured,” said Officer Jones.
The balloon came to rest in a marsh area directly across the Napa River from Vallejo. CHP pilots say the balloon captain used his cell phone to talk with emergency dispatchers.
“Luckily we had the details that said no body was injured, so we were able to leave a majority of our medical gear behind so that way we could load more people in,” said Officer Jones.
The balloon pilot, Jeff Spear, did not want to talk with KPIX 5 on camera, but he said he took off from the usual location at Sonoma Skypark at sunrise around 7:00 a.m. He said there were 11 passengers on board.
Spear said half were employees of the balloon company, Sonoma Ballooning Adventures, and the other half were paying customers. He said the plan was to land near the Napa Airport.
“Maybe they got caught up in some wind that they weren’t expecting,” said CHP Officer Rich Jones.
The CHP pilots were able to fly three people out of the marsh at a time, carrying them across the Napa River to nearby Delta Meadows Park in Vallejo, where the passengers were met by waiting paramedics. They said everyone made it out just in time.
“By the time we flew the last three off the island, we were in about ankle deep to about a foot of water at that point, so the tide was definitely coming in, and I’m glad we were able to get to them when we did,” said officer Jones.
The helicopter ride wasn’t supposed to be part of the scenic wine country balloon tour, but pilots said everyone seemed to take it in stride.
“You know we got a lot of ‘thank you’ and taps on the shoulder saying thank you for getting them out of where they were,” said Officer Jones.
Amazingly, no one was injured during the ordeal. A company spokesperson for Sonoma Ballooning Adventures said even though the landing site isn’t normal for them, it wasn’t unsafe in any way for the pilot or passengers.
This is the second time a CHP helicopter has come to the rescue of stranded balloon passengers. The balloon company involved in today’s rescue – Sonoma Ballooning Adventures – is partnered with Balloon Pacific, which also operates Napa Valley Balloons.
On May 17, 2016 a balloon from Napa Valley Balloons made an unexpected landing on a levy near the Napa River with a passengers from a Robert Mondavi wine tour. The same CHP helicopter had to rescue that group as well.