As our flight topped out at about 2150 meters (7055 feet), Àngel pointed toward the southeast and said “You can almost see the coastline.” It was hazy in the distance but nearer, within a 10-mile radius, the landscape was studded with villages. Roads wound through fields of terraced farm land, bright green on a May morning. I have always wanted to float on air currents like an eagle, and in Catalonia I had the chance to do just that.
I was one of 12 passengers–bloggers, journalists and photographers attending TBEX Europe 2015 in Lloret de Mar–on a balloon flight with our 27-year veteran pilot Àngel Aguirre of Globus Kon-Tiki. Getting to see balloons being made would be a special bonus.
During our hour-long flight, Àngel talked enthusiastically about his ballooning adventures all over the world–especially flights over Mt. Kilimanjaro and in the center of a total eclipse of the sun above the arctic circle. “Piloting is my job, my hobby and my sport,” he grinned.
Setting up the balloon
In this part of Catalonia balloon rides take off at 07:00 or 07:30, because weather conditions are best at that time of day. A light breeze is ok, but as the day goes on, wind and other weather conditions can cause problems.
Àngel and his crew set up the balloon in an area a little larger than a football field. Plenty of space is needed to stretch out the balloon sack, or envelope, which is 35 meters (115 feet) long and holds 10,000 cubic meters of hot air when inflated. The team made it looked easy, as the vehicle pulled away from the basket and the envelope came out of the trailer in a straight line.
The envelope, which weighs 400 kilos (880 pounds), was hooked to the basket and two large fans began inflating the envelope with cool air. While this was going on we could walk inside. “Wow,” I thought, “This thing is huge. It will have to lift the 400-kilo basket and today, 12 passengers!”
Standing inside the envelope gave us an idea of just how big. After the balloon was about one-third filled with cool air we stepped out and Àngel lit the burners on the basket, putting hot air into the envelope.
Off the ground!
As the envelope began to rise, Àngel matched the lift of the balloon with the weight of people in the basket, keeping it on the ground until he was ready to take off. We were all looking up and did not notice that we were airborne until we were well off the ground.
Takeoff was so smooth we did not know we were flying. The only noise was the roar of the burners. To say they are loud is an understatement.
We glided over fields, then above hills, with just the breeze to move the balloon along. The skies were clear, and the air was warm and soft–a perfect day for ballooning.
It was so peaceful that I stopped taking photos and just enjoyed the ride.
Into the forest
To show us how safe the flight was, Àngel took us down below the top of a hill and into a stand of spruce trees. We could reach out and touch them.
I leaned out of the basket and pulled the top of a pine tree over to us. I picked a cone from a tree. Yes, we were flying in the trees.
A very soft landing
As we flew above farms, Àngel had told us he would be very careful to avoid landing in a field with crops. When we began our descent, it looked as though we would land in the middle of a field, but about two meters above the ground, we leveled off.
Àngel threw a long strap to one of the ground crew who pulled us over to a road. He then lowered us the final meter to a flawless soft landing.
The envelope was allowed to cool and it began to deflate. The crew lined the envelope up so it collapsed, filling the road. Luckily there was no traffic.
Loading the envelope into its container was a lot more work than getting it out had been. The crew used a small tractor to carry the large storage basket. Remember, it weighs 400 kilos!
After the basket was loaded, we were off to a Catalan brunch at Xarop’s restaurant near St. Genís, which featured tender, slightly salty ham and butifarra sausages infused with sage. We were also treated to a slide show of photos from our trip. Àngel shows us how to drink wine Catalan style from a porró, I did not try to drink my wine like a Catalan!
The Balloon: behind the scenes
After brunch Àngel had a special treat for us: a behind-the-scenes visit to the balloon factory in Igualda, where our balloon had been made. It was not a formal tour, but rather a chance to see the factory in operation. When riding in the balloon we did not consider the craftsmanship that went into its construction. Our walk through Ultramagic gave us a heightened appreciation of this.
On our way in, we walked past shelves of assembled burners and their parts. The heart of the balloon, the burner produces the heat.
Building the basket
” This factory makes all parts of the balloon,” Àngel told us, as we walked through the building. “My favorite part, though, is seeing the baskets being made.” When we came into the area where baskets are constructed of stainless steel frames and hand-woven reeds, I could see why. It’s amazing that in this day and age, the baskets are still made in much the same way as has always been done.
After soaking in a large tank to make them pliable, reeds are woven onto an stainless steel frame. I was impressed with how easily the reeds could be worked.
Preparing the envelope
I cannot imagine how many meters of material goes into an envelope. An envelope is not just a simple sack, but has vents that can be opened and closed to turn the balloon and control the rate of descent. Envelopes can only be used for 500 hours of flight time and then must be replaced.
It is quite a sewing job to put together an envelope that is 35 meters (115 feet) long. It requires a real heavy-duty sewing machine and a skilled seamstress.
These workers are pinning a letter onto fabric that will be sewn into place on a section of the envelope.
This balloon ride did not provide the adrenaline rush of a sport like sky-diving, but delivered an incomparable 360-degree perspective, as if we’d found our own mountaintop vantage point. The surprisingly smooth and gentle ride provided us with a view on a beautiful landscape that you simply cannot get through the scratched windows of a passenger airplane. What a wonderful experience to share with friends!
If you go
- When you fly with Globus Kon-Tiki, be sure to go for the add-on breakfast after the flight; it is a wonderful meal.
- Wear a hat, as you can expect heat from the burners as well as sunshine.
- Be prepared for an early start to take advantage of good flying conditions, and if your pilot tells you the weather is not good enough for the flight believe him.
- Have FUN‼
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Thank you to everyone who made our flight possible: the Provence of Barcelona and Globus Kon-Tiki for providing our flight, and the team at Ultramagic for the care and skill you put into each and every balloon you make.