how does it stay up?
Hot-air balloons rise because warm air is lighter than cold air. A propane gas burner is used to heat the air inside the nylon or polyester balloon: the hotter it gets, the higher you go.
the first flights
On 4 June 1783, the Montgolfier brothers, French papermakers, sent up a large smoke-filled balloon before a crowd in Annonay. They sent a duck, a cockerel and a sheep up in a basket attached to another balloon three months later. The eight-minute flight made history and the animals landed safely. On 21 November of the same year, two Frenchmen made the first flight in an unattached Montgolfier balloon, drifting over Paris for 25 minutes at a height of about 80 feet. Two centuries later hot air balloons can reach heights of 30,000 feet.
In 1984 Joseph W Kittinger Jr made the first solo balloon flight across the Atlantic. He travelled 5,700 kilometres in around 84hours. Branson and Per Lindstrand made the longest hot air balloon flight in 1991, taking 46 hours to travel 10,878kms.
how does it feel?
"It's not like anything else," says pilot Roger York, who got hooked after seeing some of his friends take a balloon flight along the Alps under a full moon. "I enjoy the experience of solitude. Whilst you fly, you are in total control of your destiny." But for Julia Bayly, chairman of the British Balloon and Airship Club, it's the element of randomness that's key. "It's silly and fun," she says. "You don't know exactly where you'll end up, who you'll meet, and you're captive to the weather. You have to go with the pace that the breezes dictate. Serenity is the only word I can think of to describe what washes over you."
can you handle it?
"It sounds strange, but in a balloon there is no sense of height because there are no reference points like there are if you're hanging off a cliff, rock climbing," says Roger York. "Over the last few years, I've flown over 20,000 people and out of all of them, I only had to put down one who just couldn't handle it. Even people who think they'll be terrified end up loving it."
who can do it?
There's no upper age limit; Virgin Balloon Flights have taken up passengers in their early 90s. But they and other commercial companies usually set a lower age limit of 9-10 years as passengers have to be over 4ft 6in tall to peep over the edge of the basket. You have to be fit enough to stand for (usually) an hour if you go on a commercial flight, maybe longer if you go out with a local club. Asthmatics should seek their doctor's advice.
where to fly
Commercial balloon flight operators exist all over the UK and are a good way to launch yourself into the dizzy world of sky floating. The biggest is Virgin which has over 200 launch sites, but many smaller companies advertise in local directories. The British Balloon and Airship Club (BBAC) is the national voluntary organisation for balloon flights. There are also nationwide regional clubs where enthusiastic beginners can find tuition and crewing experience along with monthly meetings and speaker evenings.
how much does it cost?
Virgin charges pounds 125 per person for an hour's flight, including insurance and a champagne reception with the presentation of a commemorative certificate on your safe arrival. Membership of the BBAC costs pounds 18 per year. Regional annual memberships range from pounds 5 to pounds 10. If you get hooked, a balloon of your own could set you back around pounds 10,000, but it doesn't require storage space any more elaborate than your garage. What it does need is a trailer to carry it to the field of your choice for launching.
what to wear
Walking boots and layers of clothing are the key things, because you need to clamber in and out of a basket on muddy grass; and on a winter flight, with the heat of the burner, you might get hotter than you'd imagine and start wanting to peel off. Gloves are a good idea as well, especially if you want to get involved with pulling things and tweaking ropes; leather gardening gloves are ideal (bribe your Granny).
weather permitting ...
As poor, delayed Mr Branson illustrates, ballooning really is tied to the fickle finger of the weather forecaster. Most flights take off at dawn or dusk because the winds are more predictable at that time of day. But nobody wants to go sailing through tempestuous skies and all flights are subject to cancellation. Commercial operators often run phone checklines to save customers a wasted trip. Bookings are then rearranged at no extra cost.
Further information: for details of your regional balloon club phone 01604 870025. Virgin Balloon Flights 0800 132090. British School of Ballooning 01428 707307 for details of their pilot training courses.
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