23 Dec 2017 16:33 IST

Waltz with the winds

Being ‘up in the air’ acquires a dreamy, indolent dimension at the first edition of Araku Balloon Festival

As we gently floated hundreds of feet over chequered land I thought of my grandmother solving jigsaw puzzles — she would leisurely put together the 2,000 pieces in the evenings until the puzzle was complete. I, on the other hand, was never one for large puzzles. Most pieces looked identical to me but ajji would spot the subtle difference in shade and she’d neatly lay them aside according to colour before the final fitting.

Araku Valley in November looked like one of ajji’s half-finished puzzles. A shabby stubble of warm brown paddy covered the valley, the red soil underneath exposed to the cold breeze. There were still some fields that glowed tender green. (Of the many shades of green there are, that of paddy is my favourite.)

I had travelled to a remote part of the valley for the Araku Balloon Festival, on invitation of the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department and E-Factor Adventure Tourism. One of my earliest memories of hot air ballooning is from the Peter Potamus cartoon I watched as a child. The show doesn’t do justice to the experience of flying in a balloon — Peter rushes everywhere in his time machine-cum-balloon (taking the phrase ‘time flies’ literally), but ballooning is anything but a rush. It’s more like a waltz with the well-mannered winds.

The surrounding hills of the Eastern Ghats hid shyly behind thickening clouds that would later in the day pelt rain on us. At that early hour, however, they brooded darkly in the distance, letting us fly above the vibrant yellow niger flower patches. From the hot air balloon, we spotted a serpentine rivulet, parting the fields in a hurry as she went. The tiny specks of blue — metal containers that house bees — reminded me that I should pick up a bottle of fresh honey for home.

It all felt a bit surreal: I was walking under the sun on RK Beach in Visakhapatnam 24 hours ago, and now I was travelling with the wind in a wicker basket, watching the clouds blindfold the weak sun and envelop the unexplored hills in thick coils of fog. I brushed aside a shiver and remembered the warning Samit Garg, CEO and co-founder of E-Factor, gave us the night before: do not cross the hills to the north, over to Odisha — unless you want to enter territory inhabited by Naxals, who like absolute privacy. But the wind didn’t seem to comply. That combined with the winter weather of the Ghats kept us relatively low on the flight, much to my disappointment.

To put things in perspective, while we flew at 300-500 ft in the air, Kevin Chassa, our young French pilot, told us he had touched 16,404 ft in the Alps recently and had to use an oxygen mask. He was one of the 16 pilots from 13 countries at the ballooning festival.

 

History of ballooning

As far as transportation goes, a hot air balloon is an inefficient vehicle; it moves only in the direction the wind wants it to. It has, however, been termed the safest air sport by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, and fatalities are rare. Ironically, the first person to die in a hot-air-ballooning accident was the first person who flew in an untethered one — chemistry and physics teacher Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, on June 15, 1785, when his balloon filled with hydrogen and hot air, exploded over the English Channel.

While many assume the first humans to fly in modern aviation history are the Wright brothers in 1903, the Montgolfier brothers — Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Ètienne — beat them to it by over a 100 years when they designed and flew the first tethered hot air balloon with a human passenger in October 1783, in France.

Earlier, in June that year, the French brothers built their first balloon made from silk and paper and flew it as high as 6,000 ft without a passenger in Annonay. When King Louis XVI heard about the experiment, he wanted to see a demonstration. Due to safety concerns, the first living beings to fly a balloon were a sheep, a duck and a rooster. When the Montgolfiers decided to test it with a human, Pilâtre de Rozier volunteered to be the first passenger. A month later, the first free ascent in a lighter-than-air vehicle was made.

In December 1783, Jacques Alexandre César Charles launched a balloon containing hydrogen. Henri Giffard’s steam-powered airship came out in 1852, and Clément Ader made the first manned, powered, heavier-than-air flight — a monoplane — in 1890. In this way, the Wright brothers can be credited to inventing the “first manned, powered, heavier-than-air and (to some degree) controlled” aircraft.

In fact, hot air ballooning as we know it today was popularised only in 1960 by Ed Yost.



Mine was one of the last balloons to take off so I watched how pilots and their crew set up for the flight. Some of the bigger balloons had heavy baskets made of traditional rattan and could hold close to 10 people, others were snug, perfect for a person or two. Once the baskets were set up, tanks of propane were placed in them. Pipes connecting the fuel to the burner — which converts liquid fuel to gas and makes for a more powerful flame — were attached.

The envelope (the balloon) is made from nylon, which has a high melting point, and is divided into gores that extend from the crown to the base of the balloon. The gores are further divided into smaller panels. In modern-day balloons, a parachute valve is placed on the crown to help ease the release of hot air.

Once the baskets were set up and the envelope spread on the ground, a fan filled it with air to shape it out. The skirt of the balloon, made from special fire-resistant nylon, feels the heat of the burners as the basket is moved from a horizontal to a vertical position.

Despite the imposing size, the physics behind a hot air balloon is simple: hot air has more buoyancy than cold air and so it lifts the balloon. The only way to navigate the vehicle is to ascend and descend, as the wind pushes you in a particular direction. Older burner models have a 30-second lag from when it is fired to the heat lifting the balloon. This means pilots have to account for the time difference when trying to navigate. New burners have only a 10-second lag.

When I finally jumped into my basket, along with five others and the pilot, I wasn’t sure what to do. Unlike in airplanes there aren’t any seat belts or security protocols to follow — so I smiled sheepishly at the crowd (local media and a few visitors from Visakhapatnam) that had gathered around us. And before I knew it, we were floating up, up and away.

Hot air ballooning isn’t an adrenaline-filled adventure sport. Because you practically float hand-in-hand with the wind, you don’t feel much movement. It’s more like watching time move around you as you stay still and calm.

When we were ready to touch the ground, Chassa gave us simple instructions on what to do when landing. “Hold on to the handles on the side of the basket, bend your knees, tighten your shoulders and keep aside your bags until we land,” said the man of few words. I had heard about landing mishaps but I didn’t need to worry. As quickly as we had floated up, we landed with a thud in a harvested paddy field.

In hindsight I realised that the puzzle was complete.

(The author was in Araku Valley on the invitation of the Andhra Pradesh tourism department and E-Factor. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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