Landing conditions are in the pilot's mind well before he unfurls his balloon. You may not know exactly where you'll end up, but you need a clear idea of the direction and speed of travel. Closer attention is paid to Ian McCaskill or Suzanne Charlton than may seem proper, the night before a flight. If winds are too high or gusty, getting away could be turbulent but landing could be disastrous: there are no air-brakes or squealing rubber on Tarmac to ease your touch-down. Hoping for the best isn't involved. It's got to be right. The final check, in contrast to the gravitas of the moment, is with a helium-filled party balloon, whose rate of ascent and direction of flight are scrutinised as it disappears into the distance.
Putting everything together is surprisingly simple: unrolling the "envelope" (balloon) which has a worrying hole in the top, attaching the basket, securing propane cylinders and testing the burner. The basics are easy to grasp (hot air rises) and anyone familiar with gas camping stoves should feel at home with the burners and related paraphernalia. Even the "quiet" jet, used to reduce the startling effect that sudden roaring can have on livestock, is pretty impressive. It startled me every time.
With the envelope inflated first by a monster fan and then with the burner, things start to happen fast. Pre-take-off checks range from the technical (checking for holes) to the obvious but vital, such as ensuring that the chase vehicle keys are in the ignition, not the pilot's pocket. Straining at the leash, the balloon responds in a big way to any wind, bobbing and rolling, even pulling upwards as the wind blowing over the top of its curved surface produces "false lift".
Suddenly the quick release attaching us to a comfortingly large Land Rover is detached, and we're experiencing real lift. The ground falls away as quickly as the air becomes still, but the hulk of the balloon above provides a monolithic sense of security. Never mind if it is just hot air.
But anyway, there's no time for faffing around. Flying a balloon is a serious business, and once you've got going it's all happening, all of the time.
For an experienced pilot it's second nature: looking where you're heading, climbing and descending to check conditions at various altitudes, scanning the ground for livestock, checking the way ahead both through binoculars and on the map, and constantly reassessing conditions. But to a student pilot, you might as well be flying the space shuttle by the time you throw in fuel management, even having to switch lines between tanks, remembering to radio ground crew to let them know your route, and, of course, keeping an eye out for possible landing-spots from the moment you set off. And nothing's predetermined; you may have started with a flight plan, but it has to change with the conditions, requiring fast, decisive responses.
No wonder the instructor says that ballooning is good life training: there's no toughing it out, forcing things to go your way; the weather is bigger than you are.
Meanwhile, the views are stupendous and the calm (apart from that quiet burner) is unbroken, save for a niggling worry (to a novice) about the big hole in the top of the envelope. Admittedly it's plugged by a "parachute", a large piece of fabric held in place by air pressure, until its release on landing rapidly deflates the balloon. Apart from that you haven't a care in the world.
But far sooner than you'd think - time flies when you fly - it's time to descend. Even when you're up high, the ground seems to be zooming by, and the lower you are, the faster it goes. Though a balloon pilot's naturally optimistic outlook makes the whole world a landing-strip, punctuated by obstacles such as power lines and houses, in practice you need to land where you'll do little damage, preferably in a set-aside field.
So you pick your spot and go for it - you can't come round a second time. Aim for the start of the field, "rounding out" with a burn at 40ft to level off a couple of feet from the ground, then pull the red line to deflate the balloon, through that hole in the top. All you can do is hold on tight, bend your knees (you'll probably be feeling weak there anyway) and try to ignore the feeling of a total lack of control. It's the moment when it all comes together with a bang: balloon, earth and the contents of the basket. If you're doing more than about 8 knots it goes straight over, leaving everyone in a tangle and giggling helplessly. Like ballooning itself, the ending is unpredictable: you never know who'll end up in your arms. It's definitely the friendliest way to fly.
Thanks to student pilot Emily Wilson, instructor Thomas Wilson (of Wizard Balloons) and ground crew Cathy and Colin Leeder
Learning to harness hot air
A minimum of 16 hours' dual flight training are required for a private pilot's licence, which allows you to pilot a balloon unsupervised. In practice it usually takes four to six months. Learning about crops and livestock is an important element of the training. People also become involved with ballooning by acting as ground crew, helping to launch, chase and retrieve the balloon.
Early mornings and late afternoons, when winds are generally light, are the normal times to fly. Whether learning or "joy-riding", boots are ideal for coping with muddy fields, and clothing made of natural fibres is a good idea. Big hairdos with lots of hairspray aren't - the burner is within reach and very hot. Catching fire is not an issue for the balloon itself; the relevant parts are made from fire-resistant material.
The British Balloon & Airship Club is the governing body of the sport (01792 899777). Contact them if you want to become involved as ground crew or learn to fly balloons. The British Association of Balloon Operators (01789 488100) can provide details of member operators. Wizard Balloons in Norfolk (01379 898989) are available for passenger flights and to learn to fly. They also have details of a balloon/ four-wheel-drive safari in Tunisia in November. To learn to fly abroad, try the Lindstrand Balloon School in Spain (fax: 00 34 5287 7249).Reuse content