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Air ballooning - The ultimate sightseeing experience

by Jenny Lundahl, editor


The experience of flying has been the ultimate dream for humans since the first primitive hunter watched his dinner take flight. Today, after years of research and trial and error, many people travel by airplane on a regular basis, and therefore it might not be a big deal anymore. However, the airplane was not the first means of transportation in the history of aviation. In 1782, in France, the hot air balloon was born.

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The Montgolfier brothers, who invented the hot air balloon, captured smoke from a chimney in a closed cloth bag. Even though initially popular, general interest had died only three years later. Today, people who enjoy the view from high sites such as the Eiffel tower in Paris, the Statue of Liberty in New York, or the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, can enjoy sight-seeing from hot air balloons in many cities around the world—Stockholm, Sweden, is one of them. And this past summer I had a chance to try it.

Because there is no way to steer an air balloon, the captain relies totally on the wind. The captain always tries to aim the flight across Stockholm so the passengers can get the best possible view of the city. “OK, you’re set for Saturday, July 12, which is 10 days from now. Still, you have to call the captain at 3 p.m. that day to confirm the flight due to weather complications,” said the secretary at Nordic Balloons where I booked my trip. The secretary had also informed me the time and location for pick up and told me that the basket held up to 10 passengers plus the captain.

After calling the captain and receiving confirmation that the trip was on, all 10 passengers, slightly nervous, met at 6:45 p.m. The captain and his ground assistant carefully explained the procedures to the passengers, since they were not just there to fly but also to function as part of the crew putting balloon and basket together, and filling it with air. It was clear that this four-hour-event was going to be filled with action and excitement.

We drove to Frescati (north of Stockholm) to test the winds with a helium balloon, and were greeted with a most impressive sight. About 10 balloons were being prepared at this huge field, and all were at different stages of preparation. One was just taking off towards the clear blue sky with the sun shining in the 70-degree-summer night. It was amazing!

“ OK, so listen up all of you,” said the captain as he parked the van and its trailer on the big field. “You only do whatever you are told to do, nothing less, nothing more—and please let us know if you need to go to the bathroom.” It was very important that everyone did their task without interfering with others to keep things from getting more complicated. The ground assistant informed the passengers that the whole procedure from parking the van and trailer to the balloon leaving the ground only takes a short 15 minutes. No way, I thought to myself.

First, the basket was dragged out of the trailer and the captain placed the propane burner on top of it. As the passengers unfolded the enormous balloon, huge fans filled it with air. The captain then lit the pilot light on the propane burners to heat the air in the balloon and fill it to maximum capacity. Five of the passengers jumped into the basket while it was still lying sideways. Finally, as the balloon rose from the ground, the basket was pulled straight up. The rest of the passengers had only a moment to jump in before take off. This was the fastest 15 minutes of my life!

The balloon smoothly rose from the ground, one of many balloons rising around us, all at different heights, including some still on the ground. The people left observing on the ground, including my father, who was taking pictures, started to look smaller and smaller. The first time the captain released gas to the burners, causing the balloon to rise, I almost had a heart attack, because it was so loud.

Soon we were up 3,000 feet in the air and the beautiful view of Stockholm appeared. The air around us was totally calm, since the balloon travels with the wind.
Each time the captain released heat from the burners, a warm feeling spread around the excited and amazed passengers.

After an hour flight over Stockholm, going from north to south, it was time for landing. My family and the ground assistant had followed the balloon during the flight while communicating with the captain via walky talky. The landing was a bit nerve wracking because the captain can only plan where to land, and then it’s up to the winds to cooperate. We missed the first planned landing spot and seeing the ground coming closer was pretty scary. However, the captain and the wind were right on for the second attempt to land. We almost hit a roof on a two-story building, but that just added to the excitement. I feared that the landing was going to be rough and bumpy and that the basket might even tilt, but it didn’t. The landing was surprisingly smooth.

After the landing, all the passengers, and my family, helped to pack the balloon and the basket back into the trailer. Surprisingly this was also a fast 15-minute procedure. The captain prepared a baptism ceremony and told us the history of hot air ballooning. He then poured champagne on each and everyone’s head and gave us aristocratic names. I’m now the Baroness of Stockholm. The ground assistant had prepared a buffet, including champagne, sandwiches, coffee, tea, cinnamon buns, and cookies. We all enjoyed the memorable adventure for another hour while the Swedish summer night slowly got darker.


Hot Air Ballooning Facts

• Balloon pilots need a commercial pilot’s license.

• A balloon flies better in cooler weather since the hot air gets a better “lift.” Balloonists usually fly just after dawn or before dusk, because there is less wind at these times.

• Hot air balloons don’t fly if it’s raining because the water can start boiling in the balloon and damage the fabric.

• The balloon goes wherever the wind takes it. However, pilots can seek higher or lower altitudes to find wind currents of various directions.

• The balloon holds 19,000 to 211,000 cubic feet of air and looms from 50 to 90 feet.

• Depending on the weight capacity, balloons may be as tall as 100 feet.

• The wicker basket has proven to be very strong for its weight and is flexible. The wicker is sometimes woven around a steel or aluminum frame that helps to support the upright posts upon which the burner is mounted. The top rim of the basket and the uprights are usually padded and covered in suede or leather.

• To heat the air, the burners are fueled by propane gas, much the same as you probably use in your backyard barbecue grill. The burners do not run continuously; they are only used intermittently to heat the air to maintain the required lift. Each propane tank has a fuel gauge, and the burner has a fuel pressure gauge.

• The Federal Aviation Administration controls ballooning with the same strict regulations that apply to airplanes.

• Instruments used: satellite navigator, altimeter, speedometer, radio.


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