Passengers need to follow every order the pilot gives. Long hair needs to be tied down. Nothing needs to be pointed or waved at our energy source. When the pilot calls “Brace!” the passenger should immediately get into the aforementioned position. Add me being scared of heights and suddenly I was – in a pasture in the middle of nowhere – wondering why exactly I wanted to take this hot air balloon flight.
Yet in less than an hour, 29 other passengers and I were in a basket underneath a huge balloon (volume of 37 one-family houses), going up and away over the Netherlands. And I loved it. Even with the fire whooshing from time to time to keep floating on the same level, the silence and peace of just being in the air, standing around with the wind on your face and being able to peek over the edge of the basket, is a very special experience. Even though you’re looking down on toy cars and the tiniest cattle, somehow the fact that you’re 200 meters (656 feet, as the converter tells me) above the earth doesn’t register. That the only reason you’re there is because of a lot of gas and a balloon with scary thin-looking cables. There is a childish excitement (“We’re in a hot air balloon!”) and complete peace (except for the joker on the opposite of the basket, bah) at the same time.
So how does taking a hot air balloon flight work? You meet up in a pasture, where the balloon is unfolded (assistance is asked for), instructions are given and cute facts are doled out (“No, we don’t know where we will end up”/ “Yes, I can spin the balloon around its own center”). The personnel takes care of filling the balloon up, some more instructions follow and you’re allowed to climb aboard. If everything’s okay, the balloon is unhooked from its anchor (a van) and you’re up in the air without any ear popping or growling motors.
I was in the air for about an hour. It depends on the pilot if in that time you go up-up-up or he/she picks a lower air stream and therefore is able to make more miles. We crossed two rivers and seeing the reflection of you and the balloon in a river in which just a big container ship passed is crazy amazing cool. We floated above a ferry for a bit and dodged trees; it simply completely changes your point of view.
Coming down is the less-fun part of the entire experience. If the balloon comes down too fast, there is a chance that the basket will tip over and will be dragged along a bit. There is a reason there is a special position for landing, after all. We were lucky, losing enough speed to keep upright while we landed in a mown pasture (the personnel that follows on ground always tries to find the owner to warn him that there’s a balloon on his turf). After that, all the gas is turned off, the fire dies and you’re allowed to climb out. Again, assistance is asked for emptying the balloon of air and fold it in such a way that one cart can take it.
The trip ended with some more facts (the first hot air balloon flight and the prisoners that were used as guinea pigs), champagne and a title. Because yes, whoever survives their first hot air balloon flight, becomes a count(ess) of the place where you landed.
It’s a remnant of the time only nobility were allowed up in the air. And with this experience didn’t I only end up with newfound appreciation for the country I live in and the things people can create (it’s still just fabric and hot air!), but also with the title of Countess of Genderen.
You can look at some more pictures at my flickr .