Sky giants – hot air balloons

Balloons are huge and beautiful. They come in all sorts and shapes, ranging from an ordinary ball to a flying dinosaur.

In the beginning you have one large sack, a basket, one burner and some additional equipment. It all fits in a relatively small space, like the one found in a van, which is big enough for both the balloon and the team. When you arrive at the balloonodrome (which is a basically a field, a large open area), all of the equipment has to be unpacked and assembled. The dome gets filled with hot air, and in an instant you have a gigantic air cruiser and a bunch of happy people around it.

The Zagreb balloon on the USA rally.

How did I come in contact with the balloons? One day there was the 16th World Corporate Games opening, and the Balloon Club Zagreb was in charge of the welcoming party, so they put up one nice balloon. Around it was a part of the team responsible for keeping it on the ground – each of them held one rope that was wrapped around his body. I came up to one of the “holders” and asked if I could go for a ride. At first there were a few jokes at my expense, but the answer was no. The wind was too strong. But, nevertheless, I got a lot of useful information about what I should do if I wanted to fly – contacts, a flyer and that sort of thing.

Later on I started forgetting about the balloons ant the whole story, but perhaps a week or two later I noticed the colorful flyer on the table. I put on a happy face and took the phone in my hand. I asked if I could go for a ride, and how would I go about achieving this. There are two ways of flying a balloon: the cost expensive way and the casual way. The cost expensive way takes money, you need 800 furs of our national rodent (Croatian national currency is called kuna, and the English translation is marten) for the flight. The balloon is expensive and can fly for only a limited number of times. The gas is expensive, gasoline is expensive, time, car…

A glimmer in the eyes

The casual way goes something like this: you take a bit of your time aside, get prepared for a some quality leg-pulling, traveling, general enjoyment and that’s it. After a certain number of participation’s in ballooning events you earn a right to fly, and on the side you learn many useful things like how to appreciate these air cruisers.

Four pretty balloons on the morning French sky.

Later on, when I went ballooning for the first time, it turned out that the man I spoke on the phone was Tom Mikloušić – the founder of the club and Nr. 1 for balloons in Croatia. He devoted his entire life to the balloons and his passion for flying. He is one of the pioneers of ballooning, who brought this nice sport to Croatia and our neighboring Slovenia.

The Balloon club Zagreb (www.baloni.hr) exists for years and has gathered some colorful crowd. All those people have one thing in common, except for the fact that they laugh a lot and like quality food, they all share a strange glimmer in their eyes when they see a balloon taking off. One of the reasons for the glimmer is that in order to conquer all the obstacles starting from a balloon in the garage and ending with the balloon in the air, takes a lot of hard work/luck/resources.

At the wind’s mercy

First you need a ready vessel. One balloon from A to Z costs around 300.000 kuna. Then there’s the transport vehicle, trailer, and other necessary equipment. You also need a team and some nice weather.

Balloon over the field, photographed from above by another balloon.

A balloon is lighter than air. As soon as it takes off, it is more or less at the wind’s mercy, and because of that it is necessary to first determine (as accurately as possible) the right weather conditions. And that is a huge complication, because the weather is unpredictable. Not one weather institute can say with a 100% certainty that the weather will be this way or that, so it is important to keep listening to more than one weather station. The second thing you need is a flying license from the government. It often is, but not always, possible to get. The next thing is to find a suitable place for taking off, which also doesn’t necessarily have to be easy. It can easily happen that a fine meadow with green grass turns out to have a swampy nature, or that it is a groundhog’s feeding area (*see below). There is one other little problem at the end; the local microclimatic conditions, in which case it is up to the pilot’s experience. A landing place is usually arranged directly from the balloon with the owner of the meadow, if he is available at the time, or if the field is empty and there are no groundhogs, you can land without problems.

The feeling of freedom

One time I asked what ballooning was like and what it represents. The answer was extensive and again I saw that glimmer in the eye: “Ballooning is something special, it differs from anything else, because you’re actually floating. When you go flying, you wait for a really nice weather and then you get that strange feeling of floating in air. A balloon is the only vessel where you can feel free, no glass or motor humming, you’re actually a part of the air around you, a part of nature. You feel like a bird. Even in a hang glider where there is no barrier between you and the surrounding, you can’t feel this free, you’re enclosed in a box of some sort and have a humming motor near you. In all the other flying machines the speed is too great, what you see goes by you fast, and in a balloon you can look around without any time constraints because everything around you is standing still in time. A balloon is freedom, you land and take off from wherever you like. You have air, that is free, and you are free yourself. There’s also the adrenaline, because the balloon is generally almost impossible to control, you never know where you’ll land. You cant tell where you’re going until minutes after you take off judging by the wind direction. You can talk to people, they will invite you as a guest and laugh, sometimes you will land on their property. Every balloon flight is an adventure.”

I, of course, also wanted to know about some of the funny stories. Once, at a competition in Hungary Tom and his wife, Marija, landed among some bulls. The area was large and fenced, but mostly empty. In the distance were some cows, and they thought it was a mixed herd, but it wasn’t a mixed herd. When “cows” stepped nearer, they suddenly proved to be extremely dangerous bulls. Marija ran across the fence to get help, and Tom used the burner to keep them away somehow. Luckily, it all ended well. Help came in time before they used up all the gas.

A way to enjoy company and have fun

There is much more to ballooning; there are all sorts of happenings, adventures and much laughter. The easiest way to describe balloons is to describe them as means to get some company and to have fun. People fly the balloons over great distances and go far up in the air. Mass gatherings are organized and all the people who enjoy this sport gather from all over the world, and then they take off together. There are world and European championships in precise hot air ballooning – where air layers are moving in different directions, so an experienced pilot can change the direction of his balloon just by changing the altitude. When you watch them taking off from a distance, it seems as if the laws of physics have failed. They look as if drops of water were falling upwards in the skies.

 

Hot air balloons tend to be addictive. They get more attractive every time. I’ve fallen for it, now it’s your turn, my dear readers. Every time you come into “close” contact with a balloon, you will have an adventure, and that’s guaranteed!

The first flight happened in the eighteenth century in France and from that moment on we just keep climbing higher up to reach the stars. The balloon was the first flying vessel and is still here with us, because it has to offer something that you can’t find anywhere else. A hot air balloon is the only ecologically safe flying vessel which can take off by itself. It doesn’t pollute air, so even the Greenpeace people are happy with it.

If you find some spare time and want to experience something you’ll always remember, join the Balloon club Zagreb, and fly!