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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Simplicity Is Often An Arduous Task Requiring A Great Deal Of Forethought - Take Hot Air Ballooning For Example

Hot air ballooning and champagne are great friends, which is why at the end of a joy flight over the valley of Canowindra, the proprietor of Balloon Joy Flights, Graham Kerr, offers guests a glass of his home-made champagne and launches into his Montgolfier speech.

I have no doubt a form of his Montgolfier speech is replicated by hot air balloon tourist operators around the world in multiple languages every year. Effectively it is a small vignette, or perhaps a toast, to the pioneers of hot air ballooning, the Montgolfier Brothers, who carried their own champagne with them in those early days of aviation and offered the farmers below a bottle before landing on their farms to ensure that they did not mistake them for flying monsters or dragons. Champagne was also a drink reserved for the aristocracy, so a peasant was only too happy to receive a drop, and so, as Graham concludes his speech, which I had heard many years earlier, word spread amongst the countryside and hot air balloonists were welcome to land on peasant farms any time they liked. So the story goes...

My experience of hot air ballooning over the long weekend was just as wonderful as the last time, only this time I was stuck directly underneath the gas fired flutes of which I had forgotten how loud they were. My life had also taken many twists and turns since the last time I was up over the same valley so it was a time for quiet pause and reflection with intermittent loud bursts of gas fired flames shooting overhead and sending a heat down the back of my neck....

The sky was a bright cloudless blue, a shade much lighter than you seem to get in Sydney. Small patches of fog and mist hugged dams and hovered over the one river I spotted. The land was green from recent heavy-ish rains and lucerne was growing like strands of finely woven carpet whilst the ziggurat like markings of pivot irrigation systems put concentric circles across what were neatly and clearly defined plots of cropping. Up there the country that we'd just driven over, which seemed undulating at the time, now looked very flat and you could clearly make out the surrounding mountains which made up the valley which made this part of the country the air ballooning capital of Australia, or at least this was what we were told.

The previous time we had landed the air craft I recall that we got out and went directly back to the winery, there was no more to do than eat breakfast and drink champagne. This time our entire group of passengers were called upon to help Graham pack up the air balloon before we returned for our champagne breakfast. A hot air balloon, whilst floating through the sky, looks so very uncomplicated and unfettered, an air-craft that's like a floating cloud. 

It was only when we had to pack up the air-craft and when you ask a few more questions that you start to realise that  it's not just a balloon that you hang on to. Landing and taking off is complicated, there is the constant assessment of the winds. You need a car to follow you which can get through boggy country and a trailer which can carry both the basket and the balloon. The balloon weighs over 240 kg and so you need a hydraulic lifting arm on the back of the trailer which attaches to a custom made trolley which stows the balloon. The basket requires at least four people to heave it upright before loading it onto a custom track which slides the basket onto the trailer. Finally the vehicle needs to be able to take the same six passengers from the balloon back to the base. 

To fly a balloon you need the same accreditation from CASA as you need to fly a small air craft, the same safety knowledge and mostly the same safety checks. You need to know your winds, know your landing sites, have back up fuel stores and, most importantly, you have to do all of this whilst maintaining the expectations of your customers in terms of a tourist experience.

When finally we had lowered the balloon to the ground, we then had squeezed all the air out of the balloon and lined up to feed the balloon fabric back into it's bag. Then, after we had raised and loaded the basket onto the trailer and gotten back into the car to head back for our champagne breakfast, Graham launched into another pre-prepared speech about how it is being encouraged by Destinations NSW for tourists to become interactive in the experience. I was forced to chuckle on the inside, I was in an approximate after-exercise sweat from the activity of packing up the hot air balloon, and I couldn't help but think we'd done this man's job, but I was not unhappy for the experience.

The experience was in knowing that when I first snapped a photo of the balloon coming into land I had thought wistfully about a career I might have had as a hot air balloonist or perhaps as a French aristocratic aviation pioneer like the Montgolfier brothers. But then when you hear the amount of knowledge you need to own a commercial pilot's license, the maintenance and manual labour of your plant and equipment, coupled with the early starts required to get that balloon up and going on a below freezing pre-dawn June morning in Canowindra - I was left with a dry smile on my face - perhaps bow ties were not so bad after all.

In life, as it is in invariably all crafts, that which often appears to be simply elegant, is in fact somebody else's very hard work, intellect and efforts applied consistently over time to deliver something which is in fact quite arduous and complex.

Many thanks Balloon Joy Flights, you were a kill joy for my idea that I might one day become a commercial air balloon pilot but you have maintained my belief that nothing comes easy, not even a hot air balloon in the sky.

Once landed, the balloon takes sometime and some muscle to get it to deflate in a manner which can be folded. This is a vineyard in Canowindra, NSW.

Incoming: the passengers from a previous joy flight come slowly in to land.... somewhere....

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