ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY reach for the skies and profile the mad world of ballooning while attending the Araku Balloon Festival
Listening to tales of early explorers conquering the world in strange airships and watching their adventures on celluloid had always filled us with awe and wonder. 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 1960s-70s in France, UK & the US and then spread across Europe. In 1986, 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 245mph. 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 Taj Mahotsav, Pushkar Mela and the Tamil Nadu Balloon Festival at Pollachi in January (in its fourth edition).
One day, out of the blue, we got the perfect opportunity for a first hand experience, thanks to the Araku Balloon Festival. Organized by E-Factor and SkyWaltz, pioneers of ballooning in India, in association with Andhra Pradesh Tourism, it was a chance to see Araku Valley and its stunning landscape from a different perspective. We flew into Vizag for the 3-hour drive to Araku where a recently harvested agricultural patch had been painstakingly transformed into a tented luxury camp. On the eve of our maiden flight, we hung out with the world’s top balloonists for an inside look into this fascinating activity.
There seemed to be more butterflies flying around our stomachs than there would be balloons in the air. Though Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) recognizes ballooning as the safest aero sport, Chief Organizer 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 back-up 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 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 thirteen countries were taking part at 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, one day 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.”
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. 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. If you burn less often, you begin to descend slowly. The pilot must always be conscious of what to do – don’t stray too far, watch out for power lines when flying low, land near a road. If it’s windy, you land a bit harder. It’s not important where you go; only the flight is important, so enjoy the flight.
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 1 Jan 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. They flew at Hampi Festival, Taj Mahotsav, Amaravati Festival and for a TV series for the Bedi brothers with balloon flights over 8 national parks.
From branding, tethered flights, corporate group events and destination marketing to experimental breakfasts and proposal flights (somebody held a 100 ft long banner with the message ‘will you marry me’), ballooning is indeed special … 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.
Rick Astral and John were rigging up Iwi the Kiwi, a special shaped balloon that won many admirers. Rick, who calls himself ‘the cheeky Kiwi’, was a self-professed cowboy who had flown over the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. Setting up nearby were Swiss flier Marc Blazer, Kevin Chassa, whose mother was the first female balloon pilot in France and Izzati and Atiqah Khairudin, Malaysia’s first female hot air balloonists.
Their father Captain Khairudin, smitten by his first glimpse of a hot air balloon on a train journey in Switzerland, returned home to become Malaysia’s first balloon pilot. His daughters helped him organize the annual Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in 2009 and after his death in 2012, took over his mantle.
The sisters love the unpredictability of ballooning – the inability to control the direction or flight route, leaving your fate to nature, following the wind and letting it take you to unknown places. Flying a hot air balloon is different from any other aircraft because you can never plan where you will land. Once on a cross-country flight across nine states in Peninsular Malaysia, they landed in a palm oil plantation. First the workers ran away and came back with machetes as they thought it was a bomb. When they saw people inside, they thought they were gods! “Ballooning is so universal – no matter your age, race or where you come from, the reaction is always one of excitement.”
“But it’s not as glamorous as it seems”, they chimed. “You sweat buckets, there’s heavy lifting and you need a team – it’s not a one-man (or woman) show!” The nylon-polyurethane envelope weighs 100kg, the basket about 60kg and 50kg each cylinder. It takes a crew of four 20 minutes to set up. A balloon can cost around 30,000 to 100,000 Euros.
The Bee, a special inflatable balloon purely for display, was the first to dance in the air, as Luc de Wulf from Belgium wielded it expertly. After growing up on his grandfather’s stories on flying, he made his first makeshift balloon at 10 by heating a piece of plastic with a hairdryer. Luc started ballooning in 2005 and after Israel, Lebanon, Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico, Dubai and flying over the Alps in winter, this was his first experience in India.
We were assigned to his fellow Belgian Johan Vander Meiren, who had clocked a thousand 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 criss-crossed 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.
Yet, we were all unaware of another spectacle about to unfold that night – tethered flight and night glow! In a large ground, the balloons lit up each time the burners fired and the swarming crowd gasped. A lucky few got the chance to get into a balloon and experience a tethered flight. Little kids clutched colourful balloons on strings as if dressed for a fancy dress party. Later that night, we celebrated our success with dancing the local Dhimsa to the beat of tribal drums by the campfire.
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 Cappadoccia 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.”
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 27 May, 2018 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.