Hot air ballooning in Melbourne with Andy from ‘Picture This’

You may notice in the attached photos that my wife has suddenly got a whole lot more hirsuite, this is because after booking our little adventure, Jette sadly fell ill and was forced to stay at home. It was too late to cancel or re-book, so I called my best mate Guy to ask if he wanted to wake at 4am on a Saturday morning, “No probs, that sounds great”, came his reply after I explained my plans for him.

The reason hot air balloons fly is the same reason midgets can survive mexican buffets; hot air rises. The cooler the surrounding air, the more reliable the lift. This is why hot air balloon rides leave so damn early. After meeting in town and signing a disclaimer that said we wouldn’t sue if we plonked down in a tree, we got to the launch field at around 5am. Our Pilot Andy efficiently organised us to help set up this big rip-stop nylon death machine. First cold air is blown into the balloon. This is done by holding the bottom end open and pointing a massive, petrol powered leaf blower thing inside. Soon the sheer size of the balloon became apparent, I’m guessing you could make at least 100 paragliding wings out of one balloon. The fan was making a raoucous and I noticed lights coming on at nearby houses. I could imagine the conversations, “Every bloody morning…I told you this park-side house was suspiciously cheap Beryl…”

Once Andy determined that enough cold air was inside it was time to heat things up. With the wicker basket on its side, Andy turned on the gas and gave the balloon a long hot blast from the burners. They sounded like some kind of possessed fighter jet, “Every bloody morning…” Soon the balloon was straining to lift the basket (which was very cleverly anchored to the van). Once the balloon was stable above the basket, Andy told everyone to clamber in.

Before I could say, “how safe are these things?” the anchor was untied and we silently floated up. The feeling was like being in a totally silent elevator, there was absolutely no breeze and we were all hushed as we skimmed over the trees. Launching a hot air balloon is far more relaxing than hurtling off cliff with a paraglider wing above your head. As we cleared the park we saw right into someone’s lounge room. A poor unsuspecting lady sat, relaxing in her lounge room, drinking her coffee and reading the paper in her nightgown. When she looked up with a startled expression Guy and myself waved and grinned manically until she scuttled red faced out of view.

Hot Air balloon pilots have two controls: blast the flame for up, release hot air for down. Pilots cannot steer the craft in the normal way but they manage to fly the whole rig going where they want. This piqued my curiosity. Once we were well above the city and in a pack of about six balloons, I started interrogating Andy. The magic force which pilots use to steer are called inversions. Usually as you increase in height, the air gets cooler. Sometimes there is a layer of air which is warmer than that  just below it called an inversion. Inversions create a change in wind direction so that if the wind is going North – South, it might be going East – West at the inversion layer. By bobbing between these subtle layers, hot air balloon pilots can effectively steer the craft and go [almost] anywhere they want. The level of skill required boggles the mind. I struggle to land my Paraglider on a big cliff with up/down/left/right steerage!

The views were expansive, the whole of Melbourne sprawled out before us as we watched the sun rising over distant mountains. As we were going with the wind there was not a single puff of breeze and an intermittent blast from the burners kept our shoulders warm. Soon Andy was busily radio-ing fellow pilots in the group. It was comforting to hear them asking him for advice. Peering over his glasses Andy was checking weather monitors and carefully adjusting our height. I was hugely impressed when he bought all his knowledge into play to swing us around in a big, graceful loop to land right in the middle of Fawkner park, St Kilda. We touched down with nary a bump and a rope was pulled to let all our hot air out. I felt rather deflated to be finished with the experience [I know, sorry].

We all helped to pack up the rig and were chauffered off to the Sofitel Hotel in the CBD where we were treated to the most impressive champagne breakfast buffet that I have ever gourged on.

I can highly recommend that you try hot air ballooning, even if you are scared of heights. There is a real feeling of security inside that tiny wicker basket full of propane tanks and flames, no really.

I know what you are probably thinking and yes, I asked Andy about launching my Paraglider from one of their balloons (see video at bottom). Andy gave me a contact who should be able to make this happen. This activity has received the green tick from the ‘safety committee’ (my wife) so I’ll keep you posted.

Blue skies and Happy Feet to you.

 

We flew with Picture This – Hot air ballooning The crew were highly professional and looked after everyone really well, especially the little nine year old girl who was hysterical before lift off. This experience and post was in no sponsored by Picture This.

Post note: On Tuesday morning, three days after our flight, Guy forwarded this article to me. Andy was forced to make an “unscheduled landing” that was “highly controlled”. Read: The wind died and Andy pulled off an incredibly prescise spot landing between Anna’s roses and back fence!! Read more here

 

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