A Balloon's Eye View of Rabbits and Rolling Hills : Soaring: Six companies launch from Moorpark or Lancaster, where open spaces are ideal for roaming the skies and skimming the terrain.

In the mid-1970s, the popularity of hot-air ballooning soared, and several San Fernando Valley-based companies emerged to market the sport that was first developed in the 1700s. A decade later, ballooning had gone out of fashion, but now it's back in vogue as people search for the perfect present.

"A huge part of the business comes from people who want to give an unusual gift," said Bruce Williams, pilot for Calabasas-based Balloon Adventures. "We're seeing a steady growth in popularity now."

Half a dozen balloon companies are currently based throughout the San Fernando Valley, but most launch from Moorpark or Lancaster, where open spaces are ideal for roaming the skies.

For example, Moorpark provides a blanket of rolling hills and fruit orchards to sail over, but views of rooftops are increasing because of sprawling housing developments. Lancaster features plenty of open land, good visibility, a mountainous backdrop and packs of desert jack rabbits to chase as balloons skim the terrain.

The first manned hot-air balloon sailed 5 1/2 miles over Paris in 1783. Hydrogen and helium were used for buoyancy in some early balloons, but propane burners were introduced when the sport was revived following World War II.

Here's what to expect from a modern balloon ride:

Balloons usually set sail at sunrise to take advantage of optimum wind conditions. Wear warm, layered clothing that can be shed while under way, since a balloon's propane heater sheds a portion of heat on passengers. Dress for adventure--you may launch from a fertile cow pasture and, after an hour floating two to 10 miles and ascending to 3,000 feet, may land in a cornfield. Flights occasionally are canceled because of gusty winds. Most companies can accommodate two to six passengers per trip. Individuals are mailed detailed launch site directions before takeoff. A light meal, served with champagne, is a tradition which follows most flights.

* L.A. Balloon Port offers two daily flights, departing 45 minutes before sunrise and an hour after sunrise. Pre-sunrise flights are $150 per person and post-sunrise flights are $135 per person. The one-hour excursion includes a champagne brunch. "People can see the lights of the Valley and watch the sun come up over the San Gabriel Mountains," said owner David Mair, ho began his business 14 years ago.

Passengers meet at a restored 1939 farmhouse, now converted to the company's headquarters at Quartz Hill, near Lancaster. Champagne is served during the flight and the brunch, featuring homemade breads, is served at the headquarters following the flight at 42222 50th St. West, Quartz Hill, 93536. (800) 227-2363.

* Oz Airline Hot-Air Balloon Adventures flies out of the Tierra Rejada Valley, near Moorpark. Prices for one-hour sunrise flights, offered daily, are $150 per person or $250 per couple. Sunset flights, $175 per person, are occasionally offered, weather permitting. Sunrise flights include a champagne brunch served in a greenhouse adjacent to the launch site near Moorpark.

"You can see lots of Christmas tree farms up there, vegetable stands and acres of strawberry fields," said owner Bruce Brinkerhoff. "We once flew low over a strawberry field and pickers threw strawberries up into our basket. We caught them and waved back." (818) 848-0733. (213) GOING-UP.

* High Adventures offers three sunrise flights out of Lancaster and Moorpark each Saturday and Sunday. Half-hour flights are $75 per person, 45-minute flights are $100 per person and one-hour excursions are $125 per person. Flights are occasionally offered on weekdays.

Prices include a champagne brunch with juice, bagels, cheese and summer sausage served at the launch site. "On a clear day, you can see the Channel Islands if you're high enough," says owner Iain Kite. "There's lots of rolling hills, horse ranches and fields. May and June are great months to go ballooning because the hills are still green." (818) 891-8864.

* Piuma Aircraft flies out of Moorpark, Lancaster, Camarillo and Perris Valley in Riverside County. One-hour sunrise flights, offered daily, are $120 a person, although group and advance-reservation discount rates are available. Flights departing one hour before sunset leave from Camarillo daily, and cost $170.

After sunrise flights, a complimentary champagne brunch is offered at the launch site. "Ballooning is a 200-year-old sport, and the food and drink have always been a part of the adventure," said owner Marilyn Keown, who began her business 12 years ago. (818) 888-0576.

* Adventure Flights launches balloons each daybreak from a field in Moorpark. Sunset flights, priced at $160 for one hour, also are offered out of Del Mar. Half-hour to 45-minute sunrise flights cost $65 per person and one- to 1 1/2-hour flights are $115 per person.

Prices include a continental breakfast before the ride and a champagne brunch following the excursion back at the launch site. "We give passengers an 'ascension' certificate and a balloon pin too," said Jim Bilbrey, owner of the 15-year-old enterprise. (213) 651-5311.

* Balloon Adventures offers one-hour sunrise and sunset flights daily out of Moorpark, Camarillo and Lancaster. Prices, which include champagne following the flight, range from $80 to $170, depending on the day and time desired.

Owner Bruce Williams said the champagne tradition started as a peace offering to farmers when balloons first began landing in their fields 200 years ago.

"We still get mad farmers who don't like us landing in their fields, and the champagne still works," said Williams, who began his business 13 years ago. "Six months ago we landed behind a construction site. We asked the workers to open up some locked gates so we could get the balloon, but they said 'Too bad, you should have thought of that before you landed.' They weren't interested in our champagne, but they did open up the gates when they saw how much beer we had." (800) 843-7433.

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