Basketful of joy

Challenges of using the simplest form of aviation

Hot air ballooning in Araku, Andhra Pradesh. Photo by authors

Listening to the tales of early explorers conquering the world in strange airships and watching their adventures on celluloid had always filled us with awe. Be it Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout crossing the Pyrenees in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, nothing had captured our imagination like hot air ballooning. Verne’s first acclaimed novel in 1863, Five Weeks in a Balloon, involved travelling across Africa from Zanzibar to St Louis in a hot air balloon. With the 2009 animation film Up, our interest only piqued…

Internationally, ballooning as a sport started in the late 1960-70s in France, the UK & the US, and then spread across Europe. In 1986, the maverick tycoon Richard Branson did the first trans-Atlantic crossing in the biggest hot air balloon ever, and in 1991, he successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean, setting a distance and speed record of 6,700 miles and 245 mph. In the late 90s, Branson ran the largest ballooning operation in the world and wanted to bring Virgin Balloons to India, but things didn’t work out.

In India, ballooning seems to have taken off with regular events like the Taj Mahotsav, Pushkar Mela and Tamil Nadu Balloon Festival at Pollachi.

One day, we got the perfect opportunity for a first-hand experience, thanks to the Araku Balloon Festival. We flew into Vizag for the three-hour drive to Araku, where a recently harvested agricultural patch had been painstakingly transformed into a tented camp. 

Though Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) recognises ballooning as the safest aero sport, chief organiser Samit Garg reassured first-time flyers, “Ballooning is the simplest form of aviation. It’s like a parachute that operates on the simple fundamental of being LTA (lighter than air). It does not have an engine that might fail, nor a wing that could fall off; if the burner has a problem, there’s a backup burner; if there’s a hole in the balloon, it is not going to burst. If everything fails, the warm air inside will get cold and the balloon will slowly descend to earth.” We laughed at his simple logic. “The only two things that can go wrong is if you’ve taken a bad call and flown in bad weather, or when the pilot is an amateur.” We were fortunate to be in the company of legends.

“There are so few moving parts, what could possibly go wrong?” said Australian flyer Peter Dutneall in mock seriousness. He loved ballooning because it put smiles on people’s faces.

Sixteen balloons from 13 countries were taking part in the Araku Balloon Festival. Italian Paulo Bonanno, the world authority in burners, had been flying for 37 years. He originally made industrial textile machines, and one day, while talking to a friend on the phone, absent-mindedly doodled a round shape that looked like a balloon. On a wager, he made a balloon in 15 days. As he gained altitude with each try, he cut the rope and reached for the skies. Though he had flown across the world, this was his first time ballooning in India. “I’m 73 and plan to fly for the next 30 years,” he chuckled, chugging at his trademark pipe. “The only navigational tool I use is my nose.”

Weather conditions

Ballooning is subject to good weather; one can’t do it when it’s too hot, so summers and rains are off limits. The season lasts from mid-Sep to mid-April. Josep Llado from Spain began by fulfilling his dream of exploring Africa by balloon. Thirty years later, he’s still not tired. “It’s freedom; you forget everything else,” he said. An India veteran, Josep had flown in Jaipur, Ranthambhore, over the Taj in Agra, and above India Gate in Delhi. “Flying in India is very colourful and incredible, especially the landscapes and the people. When you fly over a city, people run to the roofs. When you land, they come in droves, always interested to see what’s happening.”

Josep explained that the best time to fly is early morning or evening, as the wind is calm and the temperature cool, without thermals. For long-distance flights or across mountains, the ideal wind speed is 50 knots, but for short flights, within a valley, 6-7 knots is fine. The wind blows in different directions at various altitudes, so one can change levels and pick another wind. That’s where experience comes in. You observe other balloons. “It’s a bit old-fashioned,” he laughed. 

For Samit, the magic moment came in Germany in 2003 when he saw a hot air balloon for the first time while driving from Stuttgart to Frankfurt. On learning that it was a regular ticketed activity, he wondered why it couldn’t happen in India. Samit travelled to the UK, Turkey, France and Germany to understand how it’s done, but India still didn’t have any laws to facilitate commercial ballooning. After much deliberation with the DGCA and obtaining a NSOP (Non-Scheduled Operators Permit), SkyWaltz waltzed into the skies. Commercial ballooning in India took off on January 1, 2009.

Rajasthan, with its forts, palaces, rugged Aravallis and steady tourist traffic, was the perfect place to start. Headquartered in Jaipur, they soon spread to Ranthambhore, Pushkar Camel Fair, and a permanent operation at Lonavala. Today, the market has grown so much that SkyWaltz flies three baskets-full every morning at Jaipur. In the last nine years, they have flown over 35,000 happy customers.

The next morning, the pilots left early for the launch site. Numbered jeeps carrying baskets, cylinders and other equipment rolled in. Karimulla Syed from Guntur, the only balloon pilot from Andhra Pradesh with 800 flying hours across 15 countries, was coordinating the setup. Paul Macpherson, chief of operations at SkyWaltz, was busy checking if any balloonist needed anything. We had all been designated balloons and were given boarding passes. A huge crowd had assembled to see the drama unfold. It was overcast. “If it’s foggy, it means no wind, which is good,” said Paulo. “The ideal condition is no wind on the ground and soft wind in the air. The maximum speed permitted by rule is 10 knots,” he added.

In able hands

We were assigned to his fellow Belgian Johan Vander Meiren, who had clocked a 1,000 flights in Europe, and has been flying over Bruges for the last 12 years. “We cannot steer, so we float on nature,” he shouted over the din of industrial fans inflating the balloons. The burners fired up, and after instructions to bend our knees on touchdown, we hopped in. With a loud whoosh, we were off, rising above a patchwork of green, yellow and golden fields in a valley ringed with mountains crisscrossed with streams. After the initial whoops of joy, we settled in and savoured the 15-minute ride and the sight of other balloons on the horizon. The touchdown was really smooth. Johan radioed the ground staff and we lowered carefully into an open field where we were greeted by an excited group of farmers, children, and bystanders.

On account of its sheer size and geographic diversity, India has the potential to be a top ballooning destination. However, weather and wind patterns are critical, and you need vast open spaces for landing, so plateaus score over coastlines. Places like Varanasi and Hampi can rival Turkey or Myanmar. Ballooning is big business in Cappadocia where 50-60 balloons take off each day, but it took them 27 years to get there. In India, the tough part is done and the administration, the trade, and customers are all aware of ballooning. As Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Once you have flown, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been, and there you long to return.”

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