Out of the blue

What better place to pop the question she was never expecting – and a bottle of bubbly – than in a hot-air balloon?

Hot Air Balloon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hot Air Balloon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When it comes to marriage proposals, some hopeless romantics already have their heads in the clouds and can get down on one knee at the drop of a hat. But those of us with less bendable legs that are generally planted on solid ground sometimes need to take things up a notch before popping the question. One option is in a basket – 500 meters up in the air.
“We’ve had 100 percent success rate with proposals,” says Tal Stieglitz, co-owner of Rize, a company that operates hot-air balloons in Israel. “We can’t guarantee how long it will last, but so far, in the balloon, they always say yes.”
Co-owner Ephraim Palmay explains that people typically go hot-air ballooning to celebrate special occasions such as bar mitzvas, anniversaries and, of course, marriage proposals, of which Palmay has seen some 30 or 40 since the company’s inception in 2006.
But although the overall success rate is perfect, not all of the proposals go off without a hitch. One woman fainted when she saw the ring, and Stieglitz had to make an emergency landing to revive her. But the important thing was that at some point during the ordeal she said yes.
Also, when you’re that high up, something’s got to fall. Stieglitz recalls one ring which was just a little too big on the woman’s finger, and slipped off to fall to the earth. She hopes they found it again later.
Palmay suggests that if you’re planning to propose in one of his balloons, you should do it right away. “Some people wait until the end of the flight; they’re nervous the whole time – it’s a stressful situation. It’s better to do it at the beginning and enjoy the ride.” This sounds like good advice, although for the unlucky suitor whose lady says no, it’s sure to be an awkward ride.
Stieglitz agrees it should be done up front. “Many people are nervous about the proposal, and sometimes I have to kick them to get them to do it already.”
Lending festivity to every flight is the traditional champagne landing, a toast in the fields poured into crystal glasses.
The champagne tradition dates back to the early hot-air balloon flights in France of the 1780s. Viewers of these balloons would react with fear rather than curiosity, and some passengers would be attacked by farmers, armed with pitchforks and hoes, who’d mistaken the balloons for a British invasion.
Legend would have it that one such French passenger had a bottle of champagne with him during the flight, and when he held it up during landing to avoid breaking it, the farmers realized it was a celebratory occasion. Everyone toasted each other’s health, and formed a tradition of tasting champagne after every flight.
Hot-air ballooning is a beautiful experience. It’s without a doubt the most peaceful way to fly, drifting along with the winds, everything calm and quiet except for the periodic firing of the burners to go higher. 
There was almost no sensation of motion when I tried it, and even though I found myself 500 meters in the air in a woven basket, I didn’t feel any sense of vertigo or fear of heights. It’s just a very peaceful way to enjoy the view from up high.
Rize takes off from fields in the verdant North, and you can see the green fields stretching out below, the kibbutzim and moshavim, Mount Gilboa.
The balloon usually drifts with the wind, the pilot controlling only the altitude. Different winds prevail at different heights, so the way to pick a direction is to find the right stream. To catch the current, Palmay sprays a little shaving cream into the air, watching where the wind takes it.
Flights with Rize last anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on wind conditions. My flight lasted just 40 minutes, and I wish it had been longer. The landing is pretty wild, though. Hold on tight and expect to do a bit of bouncing around the basket as it skips to touchdown.
Make sure to dress casually, especially for the landing. One Russian marriage proposer chose to make his move during the winter months, when the landing fields are typically muddy. By the time he came to a complete stop, he found his beautiful white tuxedo completely covered in mud.
But ballooning is not always cause for celebration. Terrorists once attempted to infiltrate and assault Israel using a black hot-air balloon. They were shot down by Israeli air defenses. Palmay recalls meeting a balloon manufacturer in California who reminisced about his dealings with Israelis. “Ah, yes, I once sold a black balloon to the Israelis,” the balloon maker said, at which point someone corrected him, reminding him that the balloon had actually been sold to terrorists.
For the most part, however, ballooning is a strictly happy endeavor. Rize once hosted an actual wedding ceremony in a balloon. A gay couple got married, inviting a few guests, a rabbi, and a DJ, who brought speakers and an iPod. The couple broke two glasses underfoot in the basket.
Palmay and Stieglitz say the best part of their job – besides flying, of course – is that they’re always around people on their special days. “They usually come for a special occasion, so you meet people in very high spirits. It’s great to give people such a good time. Every day is amazing.”
Before starting Rize, Palmay and Stieglitz took a hot-air ballooning course in California. Their two balloons can each hold about six people plus pilot. A third balloon, which will be able to hold 10 people on a single flight, is due to be operational soon.
Hot air balloons were invented by the Montgolfier brothers in France in the late 1780s. The first test flight sent aloft a sheep, a duck and a rooster, one of which came down with a broken leg, but otherwise unharmed. Ballooning has so far had a great safety record in Israel, with nary even a broken leg among passengers. The closest thing to an accident was a pilot who collided with a power line in the Negev in February. Both the pilot and the balloon escaped unscathed. Stieglitz explains that there are so few accidents because the entire concept of hot-air ballooning is fairly simple. “It doesn’t have complex mechanical parts like an airplane,” she says. There’s the basket, the burners, and the envelope – the balloon itself.
Ballooning is certainly not a cheap proposition, costing NIS 1,200 per person with Rize, NIS 1,000 for a child. Each flight comes with the champagne landing and a delicious breakfast afterwards, hosted at the Herb Farm on Mount Gilboa, a country-style restaurant with fresh fare that varies according to the season. 
Rize also offers package trips, including luxury room with pool and spa, for those who wish to spend some more time in the North.
There are three hot-air ballooning companies in Israel. Each offers similar experiences: a flight lasting between 40 and 90 minutes, a champagne landing and a gourmet breakfast. The prices are essentially the same, NIS 1,000 to 1,200, depending on the day.
But, when you’re picking a company, the most important thing of all is to make sure you inquire about their proposal success rate. After all, whether she faints, drops the ring, or lands covered in mud, the important thing is that she say yes.   
To contact Rize, which flies in the North, call 077-450-0282 or surf to www.rize.co.il. For a ballooning experience in the South, there’s Overisrael: 057-290-0007, http://www.overisrael.co.il. Touch the Sky flies in the North and the South: 054-476-1704, http://www.hotairballoon.co.il.