Up, up, and away

by Jesper Jensen

Only Heaven knows what high-flown dreams the French brothers Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier had, when one day in June 1783, in the presence of the French King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoniette, they first succeeded in making a hot-air balloon raise from the ground with passengers aboard. Could it have been the desire to win a technical challenge? Was it sheer intellectual curiosity? Or was it simply the desire to take a look at our planet from above?

Whatever it was, I feel quite free to blame the Montgolfier brothers when my mobile phone rings early one summer morning around 5.30 AM, ruining a pleasant night’s sleep with its insistent chirp.

Outside it is cool and dark, and I can still sense the night’s dew. The morning haze is like a thick carpet covering the fields, and my morning drive through the small Tuscan town of Tavarnelle takes place in lonely majesty. The car’s cones of light cut their way through the foggy morning landscape, and only after I’ve asked directions from a lonely police patrol do I manage to find the somewhat remote forest road where I will soon have my debut as a passenger in a hot-air balloon.

A few minutes later another couple of cars with trailers appears. The skipper, the balloon crew and the other passengers have arrived. The early morning fog slowly starts lifting while the two balloon skippers and their crew are preparing the balloons.

Flying creatures

In 1783 the Montgolfier brothers’ first passengers were a hen, a sheep and a duck, which, in this case, could rightfully be called experimental animals. However, the experiment was successful, and in this way the flying creatures conquered their space in the history books of aviation after having travelled some three kilometres. A flight which is said to have evoked scenes of chaotic enthusiasm in the large crowd below.

This summer morning, over two centuries later, no animals have ventured into the basket. Instead I have the company of skipper Pascal Goldschmidt and two Canadian tourists who have travelled to Tuscany for a large Canadian-Italian family reunion.

The rigging of the balloons is rapid. They are dragged out of the trailers and unfolded to natural size. The gas apparatus is placed in the right position, after which it starts to pour propane gas into the balloon, which very slowly grows to full size.

When we hop a board the basket, the balloon is not yet completely ready, but only a minute later we feel a light jerk as we take off from Mother Earth. The climb is quite rapid, and very soon the crew on the ground dwindle to dots. Once in the basket my first impulse is to lean out to have a good look right down. However, I soon find out that this is not such a brilliant idea, unless you don’t mind the sensation that the contents of your stomach are making a sudden break for your mouth.

Before taking off, the skipper had warned us that the visibility that morning wouldn’t be too good due to the morning fog. But even though we still see some morning fog right after our departure, the eyes’ pleasure is not at all being neglected. Actually, my first feeling is amazement, mixed with pleasure and the desire to fill my eyes with the wide panoramic landscape below us.

A short while after our departure we are presented with the trip’s climax. Far away, towards the horizon it suddenly appears. In the beginning it is a thin red stripe. Then very slowly its beams start to paint the Chianti landscape in shades of red and orange. And after only half a minute the thin red stripe starts to take shape as a rising enormous, burning red sun which starts to climb up the wall of the horizon. This miracle of nature seems to have a hypnotising effect on our pupils, and my Canadian fellow-passengers exclaim “Now, look at that” and “Wow, that’s fantastic”, and they’re right. The intensity of the sunbeams increases, and as they little by little cut their way through the remaining morning fog, we get a better view of the softly undulating landscape of Chianti, while we shot away with our digital cameras to immortalize this magical moment.

At 300 metres

The first manned voyage in a balloon took place in Paris, on 21 November 1783. The two passengers were French, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes, and despite the fact that the fire, which was supposed to keep the balloon flying, had burnt big holes in the balloon in several places, they managed to stay in the air for 25 minutes. A few weeks later a Briton, Cavendish, carried out the first flight ever in a hot air balloon using hydrogen. He reached an altitude of 2,700 meters and flew as far as 43 kilometres.

This summer morning we are far more modest in our ambition, since we only reach an altitude of between 150 and 300 meters. There is a light wind, and the temperature in the basket is the same as on the ground. The two balloons, which took off together, seem to be playing with one another. Sometimes we’re above the other balloon, then we go down below them. Sometimes we get quite close, and you can easily see the silhouette of the passengers in the other basket.

The wind has decided that this morning we should go south, so we are gliding silently above forests, vineyards, small lakes, Tuscan farmhouses and a motorway where flustered car drivers on their way to work probably ask themselves what on earth makes people fly around in a hot-air balloon at 7 o’clock in the morning.

Good safety

In an attempt to cross the English Channel in June 1785, the abovementioned de Rozier was killed in a tragic accident. This happened when his hot air balloon exploded after only half an hour of flight. For that reason some history books, in a rather ironical manner, have observed that “de Rozier became the first human to fly a hot air balloon, and he also became the first victim of a balloon accident”.

During the trip in the balloon I can’t help thinking – at least for a second – about my own personal safety. Can something go wrong? Our skipper explains that he has been flying hot air balloons for ten years without ever experiencing one single accident. Modern hot air balloon are very safe and accidents very rare, he says. The balloon itself is made of thin nylon, which, however, is incredibly resistant. The lower part of the balloon is made of the material Nomex, which is not flammable, and in the top of the balloon is situated a valve that can be opened to let the hot air out. The increased safety is probably one of the reasons why hot-air ballooning is having a revival in Italy in recent years.

Eccentric personalities

The history of aviation is full of extraordinary tales about eccentric personalities and their incredible voyages in hot-air balloons. An example of this is the Swiss Bertrand Piccard and the Briton Brian Jones. In 1999 they carried out an incredible record-breaking long flight around the world. Starting out from the Swiss Alps, they flew some 37,000 kilometres in only 18 days.

This summer morning, however, we don’t have much reason to feel particularly eccentric. When our skipper says after 45 minutes of flying that he will now start to look for a suitable place to go down, we have only moved 12 kilometres south due to the light wind.

We now start slowly to lose altitude. The landscape is slowly getting closer. We are gliding silently towards the ground and pass only some 15 metres over a group of treetops. Skipper tells us to get a good hold on the basket, since we are going to land shortly. Our runway, an improvised airfield, is approaching with menacing rapidity.

The basket hits the ground sideways with a rough thud. Despite our modest speed we are dragged some 10-15 meters along the field before the balloon comes to a halt. The potentially most dramatic moment is over and done, and we leave the basket with some relief. Five minutes later the service car shows up, and the skipper and his assistant start to take the remaining air out of the balloon, refold it and put it back into its container.

I chat with my Canadian fellow passengers about this heavenly experience, and our enthusiasm is so great that even though we now have firm ground under our feet, we are feeling quite “high”.

Spumante for everybody

The history books don’t say much about the amount of spumante and champagne consumed after successful voyages with hot-air balloons. But that summer morning we aren’t very interested in such historical details. All we know is that we’ll soon be sitting around a well-prepared breakfast table together with the balloon crew to have a solid morning meal of Tuscan prosciutto, local salami, fresh bread and, on top of everything, cold spumante.

We leave our landing field in the service vehicle and head for a small countryside café where our breakfast has been prepared. Here we meet with the passengers – a Manchester couple – from the other balloon and their skipper, Stefano Travaglia, who, with a worldly air, starts to tell anecdotes from his twenty years as a balloon skipper.

The Canadians and the Manchester couple agree that the trip was “so fantastic”. I am caught up in Travaglia’s fantastic stories and almost scientific accounts on the flying safety of today. The time has just passed ten o’clock in the morning, and I have already made a notable dent in the Tuscan prosciutto and consumed a considerable amount of spumante. No wonder I have a funny dizzy feeling that my day has had a flying start.

December 17, 2013

Up, up, and away

Tavarnelle Val di Pesa
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