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.
In a balloon you are much closer to the ground than in a plane and moving slowly, at the speed of a gentle breeze, allows you to really see the countryside.
We could see Mount Montserrat to the east, the valleys around it filled with ground fog.
We flew slowly, so slowly we could not tell the balloon was moving over the patchwork below.
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.
This is where the frames are created , from stainless steel tubing.
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.
The weaver only has about six inches to go, to have this basket ready for the next step.
This basket is the size of the one we flew in. Here, a worker puts finishing touches on the basket floor.
After the basket is formed, the frame and brackets are welded into place.
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 to 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.
I have only been in a balloon ride once and it was in Myanmar at sunrise and quite magical! I love seeing the behind the scenes visit you’ve given us. Up in the air, no thought is given to all that must go on behind the scenes to make it safe and workable. When you see a balloon from the ground, you have no sense of how enormous the envelope is and all the stress it must encounter in the sky. I think I’m glad I didn’t think about all these details before take off! It was great to meet you and Anita at TBEX.
Our pilot Àngel has 27 years of experience and the balloon looked quite new so I was not worried. I really did appreciate the visit to the Ultramagic factory and see how carefully they build balloons. WE also enjoyed meeting you at TBEX.
What a fantastic trip, the scenery is stunning and the visit to see the operations is interesting. Love the photo with everyone inside the actual balloon.
Thank you for your comment. Àngel told me the height of the envelope and that it held 10,000 cubic meters of hot air, but that did not mean much until we were standing inside of it only about 1/3 inflated. Have you taken a balloon flight?
What an incredible experience, love the aerial photos and getting behind the scenes to see how they are made! Fun!
Thank you for your comment. It was really enjoyable. I like to know how things are made so the factory visit was special.
This is a once in a lifetime experience! And I am just wowed by the photos. Each one is more exciting than the last. Thanks for sharing it all.
Thank you Betsy. Next time you are in Barcelona, you too can go!!!
What a fantastic ride! We have never been up in a hot air balloon but it is definitely on our list. Even more now.
Thank you for your comment. The balloon is not at all like racing at Watkins Glenn, it is smooth and there is nothing to pop out of the cupboards.
I’ve never taken a balloon ride and I’m not sure I ever will, given my fear of flying, so this article was great for its step-by-step description! You made it all seem so gentle. Is there turbulence, like a plane would have at that altitude? Your ground fog photo is gorgeous, by the way!
Rachel, thank you for your comment. It was as I described smooth as sitting in your living room. Because you float on the breeze, there is no turbulence. Flying early in the morning gets you up and down before there are uneven air currents. One of our group was afraid of heights and she really enjoyed the flight and said she would do it again.
It seems like you had a unique and beautiful post TBEX experience. I’ve never been in a hot air balloon, but we were in Albuquerque in 2013 during their annual hot air balloon gathering and I love to watch them. I’ve kind of decided that even tandem sky diving need not be on my bucket list, but I think I would give hot air ballooning a try.
Suzanne, thank you for your comment. I would recommend a balloon flight, ours was smooth. You get a 360 degree panorama of the countryside.
Great post! We went up in a hot air balloon ride in the Serengeti and the challenge was crawling our of the basket:-) It really takes incredible skill for these guys who make their maneuvering look so effortless!
Thank you for your comment. Yes, getting in and out can be a challenge. The basket we were in had foot holes in the sides, but even with that it was a long step down onto the ground. Most importantly, it was a fun time and beautiful views.
What a fabulous way to see this beautiful part of Spain! And the backstory of the balloons was fascinating.
Thank you for your comment. It was a delightful trip, smooth and perfect for taking photos. The weather was great to see the Catalan countryside.
What great images! I especially liked that very first selfie. THAT is a great use of a selfie stick!
Thank you for your comment. It was a beautiful day. The first photo is Angel the pilot taking the selfie with a GoPro. It was a perfect day for photos.
What a beautiful journey; your photos are stunning. I also really enjoyed the behind the scenes information!
Marilyn thank you for your comment. I am happy to hear you liked my photos and the behind the scenes in the Ultramagic factory. Have you ever taken a balloon flight?
Looks like you had a wonderful time. We did a balloon ride in Cappadocia, Turkey and it was an experience of a lifetime. I wouldn’t hesitate to go on another balloon adventure. Glad you took a break from photo-taking to just enjoy the ride.
Thank you Sue for your comment. I agree, I will take another balloon flight when I get the chance. Looking at the surrounding countryside was really a relaxing joy. Also, having the photos now to help me remember the flight is also nice.