The joys of hot air ballooning

There is absolutely nothing like it, and although it is the oldest form of aerial transport, it is still popular

There is absolutely nothing like it, and although it is the oldest form of aerial transport, it is still popular today – in fact, with the development of modern materials and efficient gas burners, its popularity is actually growing.

I mean hot air ballooning of course, something that started as far back as 220 AD with the Chinese making them out of fine paper with a small burner installed in the base, I would imagine quite a few of these set light to neighbourhood houses as well!

The first documented balloon flight in Europe was by the Brazilian priest Bartolomeu de Ousmao at Lisbon in August 1709, who made a small paper model similar to the Chinese one mentioned above, I can find no record of any damage he might have done!

The first known manned flight was made by the Montgolfier brothers at Paris in November 1783, it was tethered and only rose a few feet from the ground – but it was a start!

Over the following years many deigns for balloons were produced, some successful, some downright failures, and the two main sources of energy used were hot air by means of a fire hanging under the balloon and hydrogen gas pumped into the balloon itself. Both methods, I would think, were highly dangerous, considering the materials used to manufacture them!

Nowadays we have a wide choice of lightweight, fireproof, non-melting materials from which to make a balloon, and the heat can be provided from large gas bottles hung above the passenger basket and just under the neck of the vehicle. Gas-filled balloons are also used, but these are today filled with inert and entirely safe helium rather than the highly explosive hydrogen of the past!

Modern competitions are now held regularly, all over the world, testing the skills of the pilots, to find the right breeze to get them to a particular, selected target, many kilometres away. Depending on what height the pilot decides to fly at, he may find winds of different speeds, travelling in different directions, all of which a skilled pilot can use to get him to his destination, bearing in mind that a balloon can only fly down-wind; that is to say, if the wind is blowing from north to south, then the balloon must travel south too!

Flying in a balloon is a truly wonderful experience, quite different from any other form of transport. For a start, no matter how strongly the wind is blowing, on board the basket it is always very still and very quiet. This is because the balloon is travelling at the same speed as the wind, which is the motive-force that drives it. You also have the fun of being able to shout down to anyone below, and watch them trying to figure out where the voice is coming from, before they hear the roar of the gas being ignited to inject more hot air into the canopy, and they look up. It’s interesting too, the way that cattle follow the balloon as it drifts across their paddock, or dogs bark wildly up at it, whether from fear or bravado I have no idea.

And all this is going on while you lean over the top of a basket-work wall, no thicker than a Sunday newspaper, a wall that creaks every time you move, and a floor that is no more substantial than the wall!

But you do get the opportunity to see the countryside around you in so much more detail than in an aircraft, because you move so much more slowly, or even remain stationery if the breeze drops off altogether. That’s something I could only do when flying in my glider, if the wind I was heading into was the same strength as the speed I was trying to fly, but blowing in the opposite direction to the one I wished to go! (And in that situation, you don’t get a lot of time to look at the scenery!)
Everyone should have a go at ballooning, it is unhurried (except sometimes, when you try to land – but that is another story!) it’s at one with nature and compared to the cost of renting a light aircraft, it’s reasonably inexpensive. Go on, have a go!

Have you been on a hot air balloon ride?

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