This post was prepared and scheduled before the recent horrific crash of a hot air balloon in Texas. Our thoughts are with the families of the aeronaut and his passengers.
My belief that hot-air ballooning is essentially safe and immensely pleasurable is, however, not shaken by this rare tragedy.
As you know, we were booked for our balloon flight on Monday evening.
Late Monday morning, I had a text from the company, saying: “Your flight is cancelled due to wind this evening. A small front will arrive at the beginning of the evening. Places are available tomorrow morning.”
Rendez-vous for the evening flight is at 7pm in a relatively remote space next to a commercial vineyard. For the morning flight, meet-up time is 6am. After some discussion, mostly about the stupid time we’d need to get up, we decided to accept the morning flight. Julie was kindly dog-sitting for us overnight, the hotel was already booked and paid for, and we were running out of available dates for us to do it. We shall be away for most of next week, and have extra dogs for much of the rest of August – then we’re off on holiday in early October, by which time the ballooning season will be coming to a close.
We made our way to Tours, to the hotel we had booked, arriving a little after 7pm. Knowing that we would need to be away by about 5.15am, we settled for an early dinner and straight to bed. There are a number of eating places near the hotel; we chose an Italian restaurant called Bella Citta. We spent a pleasant hour or so there – good food, good wine and a splendid, authentic atmosphere. The service was no better than okay, but it was a busy evening, and the staff were clearly not slacking.
After a night spent mostly not sleeping, we left, under cover of darkness, at about 5.20am for the 35-minute drive to our meeting point. I was navigating using the Waze application on my phone. I knew, from the earlier journey, that it was draining my phone’s battery and that the charging cable wasn’t doing what it said it was. What I didn’t expect, though, was that the phone would randomly flip-flop between its night and day profiles, switching from the Waze screen to the clock screen each time it did so, or that the voice feature would randomly cut out. Navigating without map or voice is not easy, and we nearly missed our turn-off from the autoroute. Had we done that, we would not have made our rendez-vous on time.
We arrived just before 5.55am. It wasn’t as light as this picture makes it look. We registered with the woman with the torch and clipboard, and she directed us to one of the two vehicles on the left. Meanwhile, one of the aeronauts (pilots) released a small helium balloon to detect the ground-level wind speed and direction.We climbed into the back of the Land Rover. It was towing the oversized picnic hamper that was to be our home for the flight. After a drive of about twenty minutes in a direction that would allow the wind to carry our balloon back to our start-point over the route they preferred (the aeronaut explained that we are at the mercy of the wind; he cannot steer the craft beyond changing altitude to take advantage of any differing wind direction), we disembarked, unloaded the basket and tipped it onto its side for the balloon canopy to be attached.I say we. I mean some of us. Others of us disappeared off to photograph the rising sun.Once the canopy was attached, the portable fans were started, to inflate it ready for the flight.Two passengers were
pressed into service given the opportunity to hold the mouth open to assist the fillingwhile, in a field not a million miles away, another balloon had already taken to the air and was silhouetted against the dawn light.Fully inflated, the air needed to be heatedwhile the fans were still keeping it full.It started to rise. Once it was vertical, we all climbed into our picnic hamper and, at 6.55am, with another burst of heatwe were airborne, and starting to enjoy the viewsSome nice residences here, with productive raised beds and formally laid-out gardensOur support vehicles were trailing us, aiming to arrive at our landing point before we did.The group that met just before 6am was split between in two balloons; each can carry sixteen passengers, four in each of four discrete compartments. I think the other balloon was the more attractive of the two. This is a good thing, as it meant we could show the prettier one in our photographs.Seeing our own shadow on the surface below was un unexpected bonus.As was the ability to include the moon in our daylight shots.Throughout the flight, while drifting in the desired direction, we were rising and falling according to the flight plan, in a path designed to give the best views. The place they were most keen we pass over is the château at Chenonceaux Having passed that, the other balloon started to lose altitude. I wasn’t sure why, but thought it must have been nearly home and preparing to landI was wrong. It was descending to the river Loire, ascending again on the other bank. Here is its reflection as it climbed,and here is ours, when we were at our lowest altitude above the water. At this point, it is worth commenting on the aeronauts. These guys are highly skilled, well experienced and, if ours was anything to go by, thoroughly nice people. We were totally safe in their hands, and even those with a fear of heights felt no concern as we drifted, slowly, silently and smoothly, carried by the light breeze. Flying low above the river gave us an alternative view of the chateauand here is our selfie with the château gardens behind (and below)All too soon, we were approaching our landing site. Here you can see the other balloon descending, with its support vehicles in attendance.Safely down and without heat, the canopy slowly starts to deflate.The basket remains upright throughout, as the canopy collapses gracefully to the ground.And so, after almost exactly an hour in the air, during which time we covered about 10Km, we were safely down again. While the support crew detach the balloon from its basket, the poseurs pose. The balloon canopy is heavy. According to the support staff, it weighs in excess of 350Kg (almost 800lbs), but that may include the basket and its burners and fuel. Once it is down and everyone is settled, passengers help to pull it straight, fold and evacuate it (think of it as a seven-storey high canvas tent), then carry it to its trailer, where the support man stows it, ready to take it back to base in preparation for the evening flight.It was hard work, but saying thank-you with champagne is always acceptable. This, by the way, is Thierry, our highly expert aeronaut.On reflection, I think the morning flight is possibly a better bet than the evening one. The air is cooler and more stable, and the world is fresher.
A big thank-you to France mongolfières (English language website is at france-balloons.com). We can’t fault them on anything, and we’re now hooked and thinking where we can book a flight for next summer.