Where the wind blows, there the balloon goes. If there was ever a proverb inspired by the invention of the hot air balloon and valid to this very day, it would clearly go like this. There are, however, several versions describing the invention of the use of hot air for aviation. The main heroes of course are without a doubt the Montgolfier brothers who ran the family paper mill in the southern French town of Annonay. One legend has it that Joseph, the elder of these pioneering brothers, held a buttoned-up shirt over the flames in the fireplace which gradually filled up with warm air and began to float. Another relates how during a business trip to Avignon Joseph booked into a traveller´s inn and while reading the newspapers kept a watchful eye on the flames flickering in the hearth. He was fascinated by the hot air rising up into the chimney. Hey, he must have said to himself, this could be used to take man up into the heavenly heights. He asked the staff to get him some silk, scissors, a needle and thread, then he measured, cut and sewed until he had created a not very artistic cube with a single hole. He held this above the fire and the small balloon filled up with hot air and began to levitate. Encouraged by this success he took a quill, sat down and wrote to his younger brother Etienne, asking him to procure some silk (used at the time for gentlemen´s waistcoats) and rope. As soon as he got back from his business trip Joseph promised Etienne that he was going to show him one of the strangest things in the world. In November 1782 the first bigger test took place in their home garden but the historic public flight occurred on that memorable fourth day of June, 1783, in Annonay. The balloon rose to a height of 1000 metres and flew for about ten minutes. The hot air was generated by burning straw which was attached to a firing grid beneath the balloon. People were so startled by this attraction that they forgot to put out the burning straw when the balloon landed so that the balloon mantle was burned. However, this first-ever virgin flight as well as the invention itself would remain stuck to the names of the Montgolfier brothers for ever.
Jacques Étienne Montgolfier
Ballooning arrived in Prague in October, 1790; Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Count Jáchym von Šternberk (who was into natural sciences) took off from Stromovka Park in Prague. Although he was not actually at the controls, Count Jáchym is considered to be the first Czech aeronaut. Austria´s pioneer aeronaut was Victor Silberer. Aged seven (back in 1853) he was entranced by a balloon piloted by the famous Eugene and August Godard brothers in Vienna and according to his autobiography decided to dedicate his life to aviation. Improbable as it may sound, as early as 1882 Victor Silverer had placed an order with the Parisian company Brissonet for his first balloon comprising a cubic volume of 1100 m3 and christened it Vindobona. And this is where I end my excursion into the history of ballooning. I felt obliged to mention Victor Silberer simply because I undertook my own inaugural balloon flight in Austria.
January, 2015. Balloon pilot Michal Kubát organised a small party with some friends in Maunterndorf, a tiny town in the Austrian federal state of Salzburg. Friendly ties to the club at the local airfield made this possible. While discussing our joint flight in the Chad balloon with Heart Core – that is, with me and Honza Tutoky – they immediately alerted us to a fundamental flaw in our enterprise. “Flights across the Alps are amazing but also tricky experiences. We will be totally dependent on the weather conditions which can be forecast only one or two days in advance,” he explained. “You can simply hang around on the spot for two weeks and maybe never take off. Likewise, weather conditions can change without warning. Because of the thermic conditions the only time you can conduct these flights is in the winter. And while we´re on the subject, don´t forget to pack some warm underwear. Up there it could be -20°C and that means quite a draft up your leggings.” So, given the fact that the distance from the launching pad to our homes was only some 500 kilometres, we decided we would await his phone call. I must admit that for a couple of days I was on tenterhooks; several times a day I found myself checking if I hadn´t missed a call. Finally I was going to make an old, old dream come true: buzz around in a balloon. Not just rising several hundred metres above the landscape and landing somewhere in the middle of a meadow full of flowers (which, of course, is quite charming) – I was going to tackle an alpine ridge, something so many ballooners have never managed! We were going to fly over a thirty kilometre long zone of the Low Taur mountain chain in the central crystalline Alps.
“Tomorrow could be it, you better come tonight.” This was the call I had been waiting for from Michal. A few hours later Honza and I were sitting around a table in an apartment with Michal and his team carefully plotting our flight. “We could be up for one hour, or maybe several hours. The weather forecast suggests we could do it in an hour or two. But since we can´t fly quicker than the wind, if the wind stops blowing we could be in for a much longer flight.” The forecast was favourable from morning till 2 p.m. after which a front was supposed to arrive from the south. We needed a southern wind so as to be able to land in the Enns River valley after crossing the Alps. The E651 motorway runs through this valley. “We´re going to try and land somewhere here, the next possibility is way up there but I don´t want to risk that,” he said, indicating the situation on the map. Landing is subject to so many factors such as high tension power lines, vegetation, fences, rough terrain etc. Added to which one needs to maintain visual contact with the ground. Trying to land in fog or haze is a tremendous risk. I had been under the impression that the whole thing was much simpler. Michal just smiled and shook his head. “In the basket we have to have our compulsory equipment, emergency baggage, snowshoes and some food. If we have to make an emergency landing somewhere in the middle of the mountains we may have to wait a long time for help. That is, if someone can get to us.”
And how could we get stuck? Simple: the wind stops blowing and the balloon hangs suspended on the spot. We can go up or down. Winds vary at different heights, so then it´s a question of the pilot´s experience to get you out of trouble. Of course, you can´t rely on that. (I am amazed by drivers who during the winter months set off wearing just a sweater or jacket convinced that they have a full tank and if need be all they have to do is turn on the heater. It just takes a snow calamity, an accident or black ice on the motorway and their life is at risk. The same thing goes for people who think that the Himalayas are dangerous when you can freeze to death in the Krkonoš Mountains in North Bohemia). In the morning at the airport after our team briefing I could see that Michal wasn´t leaving anything to chance. He had brought his largest balloon, Chad OK-2008, which under normal circumstances can cater more than comfortably for 8 people in four separate compartments. With a capacity of 6000 m³ it had been manufactured by the world´s leading balloon company, Ultramagic of Spain. This balloon is equipped with the latest technology, e.g. a smart valve to allow for rapid air release and a rotating valve to enable the balloon to rotate on its axis during flight. This it important when trying to line up the basket correctly when landing. The mantle is made from ultralast, a material which is many times stronger and more robust that what is generally used by balloon manufacturers. “If after today´s flight you should decide to buy something like this, just say so. I am the Ultramagic representative for the Czech Republic, so I´ll give you a discount,” said Michal with a chuckle. Bit of a joker, I thought, familiar with his tenacious tirades against all sorts of discount portals offering excursion flights at bargain rates. “If someone is offering flights below cost it is clearly at the expense of safety. People should be aware of that,” he said angrily. I can understand him. But for us at that moment what was more important was the fact that he is a certified balloon technician, something that could come in handy far from home. Especially in the Alps. There were five of us on this flight, the rest of the baskets were filled up with bottles full of gas. After all, if the wind stops blowing we need to stay aloft somehow. I´m not going to dramatize this unnecessarily. It takes a while to get the balloon ready for take-off (I´ll deal with this next time); finally the team squeezes into the basket, you wish one other a safe flight and gradually the earth begins to recede.
Throughout the flight I was in a state of adrenalin nirvana, snapping one photograph after another and sometimes switching on my camera. (Honza was filming with the other camera from the opposite compartment.) And since HeartCore is an interactive magazine you can view the video right here. This is where I give up trying to find verbal equivalents of the beauty beneath us, of that breath-taking splendour …
It took us over an hour to cover those thirty kilometres; once airborne, we were picked up by a decent wind and sailed across the range like on a flying carpet. Up there there´s no rushing of the wind to be heard – after all, you are flying at the same speed. A silence the likes of which you will seldom ever hear. Now and then broken by walkie-talkie communication with a colleague´s balloon or Michal´s occasional announcements to his crew: “We are now at a cruising height of 3500 metres, it´s 10 degrees Celsius and we are flying over the highest peak of the Low Tauer range.” Looking down, Hochgolling seemed to me just another “normal” snow-covered hill although from the land its 2863m appear much more monumental. Secretly I was wishing that this flight would last for hours. Or at least for another half an hour. But that would be wanting too much. Thank you for this one hour! Then it was time for our landing manoeuvre, which is a pretty treacherous business in mountain valleys and can really tax a pilot´s skills. Coming down into a valley you have to descend from 3000 metres with a maximum rate of descent of -7m/s to make sure the balloon does not overfly the valley, always aiming for the middle because there can be unstable wind currents on the edges which could suck the balloon up out of the valley again. The next possibility of landing in another valley along the same wind direction might not come until several hours of flight later.
Michal Kubát presented us with a text-book landing. Without any hesitation we set down in the middle of the valley right next to an access road so that our accompanying vehicle had no difficulty in reaching our landing spot. Packing up the balloon reminded me of a slow-motion version of a slick Formula 1 team in its depot.
When I arrived home, lots of my friends asked me what it was like. Today, even half a year after the event, I keep replying with a single word: fantastic!