A decade ago (and, given the reason for it, it's not surprising that it was exactly a decade ago) I chartered an Antonow AN-2 biplane to take some friends on a sightseeing flight over Berlin to celebrate my 40th birthday.
In the years since, I have been celebrating on a somewhat smaller scale (even though there were interesting things to do, like flying in a small Stampe SV-4 biplane on my 49th birthday), but for my fiftieth birthday, I wanted to do something bigger again.
The idea was to do something connected with flying and at least as much capacity as the Antonow (which allowed for ten passengers). I had considered having a sightseeing flight in a DC-3, but that seemed too much like a repeat of the flight ten years ago, so I decided against it. (Which, in hindsight, turned out to be a lucky choice. The DC-3 crashed two days before my birthday. Nobody was seriously hurt, but the plane was in no condition to fly.
In the end, I decided to have a balloon flight.
There was a company that had a balloon with space for eight passengers and a second one with space for six passengers, which meant I could invite thirteen guests, which seemed like a good number. (They also have a third balloon for three passengers, but I didn't book that one.)
The scheduling was a bit tricky, since my birthday was on a Monday and I wanted to have the flight on my birthday. (So taking a raincheck wasn't really an option - either the flight would happen on that day or not at all.) Flight times for balloons are usually around sunrise or sunset, since the air is calmer at these times. And often the air is a bit calmer in the morning than it is in the evening, so the best chance for the flight to happen was to have an early flight.
Which, on the longest day of the year, means quite early.
Meeting time was 5am, which meant that those driving from Berlin would have to leave around 4am.
And still, when the date came nearer, the weather forecasts didn't look too promising. A thick cloud cover (which is not as nice as blue skies, but no problem for ballooning) and probably no rain, but quite a bit of wind.
Strong winds (as long as they are regular and not gusty) aren't much of a problem during the flight, but they are a problem during the start (and slightly less during landing). So there was a bit of nervousness whether the flight would take place.
On the evening before the flight, the skies pretty much cleared up and the balloon took off, but the next morning, everything was overcast again. And though none of us passengers thought that there was much wind, the pilots had a different opinion. A balloon is quite big (and thus a pretty large 'sail') and the air inside a balloon weights about six metric tons, so if that gets moved by the wind, it's a lot of mass moving and there is no way to keep it under control.
But, luckily for me, the two pilots decided to give it a try anyway and drove to a field that was shielded from the wind by a small forest.
So it was finally time to roll out the balloons.
Since it would be unwise to turn on the flamethrower (ok, the more correct name is burner) on a flat balloon, it's first necessary to hold up the opening and pre-inflate the balloon with two ventilators.
And then it was time to turn on the flame, which is impressingly large.
Once the flame is on, it doesn't take long until the balloon is ready to go. So everyone boarded quickly and before we really noticed, we were up in the air.
The little bit of forest that protected us from the wind can be seen from the image above. While (preferably) the wind during a start should be less then 15 km/h, once we were above the trees, we were moving at about 30 km/h.
Nonetheless, the flight itself was a very calm one. (Since the balloon is moving with the wind, the flight would probably feel calm in a hurricane. The only troublesome things would be gusts and whirlwinds.)
And while we didn't get bright blue skies and sunshine, travelling through low clouds made for some interesting moments. At some point the other balloon we couldn't see the other balloon, but could only locate it by listening for the sound of it's burner.
And having the second balloon noiselessly (the burners were only used in bursts) emerging from the cloud felt a bit like a scene from some ghost ship movie.
But mostly both balloons stayed below the clouds and spotting (and photographing) the other balloon was easy.
Some of the landscape that we were passing looked fairly non-descript, since the wind drove us over a former military area, which had just a few criss-crossing tracks and isolated buildings, but mostly had been taken over by trees.
But since we had a fairly strong wind, we also got to see some villages and agricultural areas and also some horse training areas. (Actually we did get quite a tour - after about half an hour, the pilot showed us the place where he sat down the previous day. So we covered more ground than on many other sightseeing flights.)
One of the recognizable places was Kloster Zinna (Zinna Abbey), which is a reasonably popular tourist destination (hence the fairly large parking lot close to it).
When we were getting lower (a couple of minutes before landing), we happened to scare two deer that were grazing in a field.
But then the hour was over and it was time to find a landing spot. (The basic deal with the flight was to fly for about an hour and then set down at the next possible landing place.)
We passed over a small forest, but then there was a large field with lots of room to touch down.
The balloons should have probably landed a bit closer together (in the end, they were about 500 meters apart), but the yellow balloon came close to some power line and had to regain some altitude before being able to go down again and hence drifted a but further.
The striped balloon was a bit further north and didn't cross the power line, so it could go down a bit sooner. In most cases, the balloon basket stays upright (about 70% of the time), but since it was windy, it was pretty much expected that the basket fell over. Which sounds more dramatic than it actually is - the 'falling over' took about ten seconds, so it was more like a slow leaning over sideways after a soft touchdown.
All there was to do was to but the balloon back in its transport bag, sit down on it to get out the remaining air and compact it a bit (and because it's comfortable) and then put it onto the transport vehicle.
Time for some final pictures of the basket contents and it's licence plate.
Then the basket gets loaded on as well and we're ready to go and join up with the group from the other balloon.
While there's a rather silly tradition (primary in Germany) associated with 'first timers' on a balloon flight, we skipped that one and had a more international 'welcome back to solid ground' celebration, which consisted of a glass of champagne and a certificate.
All in all a pretty neat way to spend a 50th birthday.
Or at least the first couple of hours of it. It wasn't even 7am when we were back on the ground. Time to go out and have a leisurely breakfast.
The total flight time was 57 minutes with a distance of about 27 km covered. The highest speed above ground was roughly 40 km/h.
The flight paths of the balloons can be downloaded here and here as Google Earth KML files. (Note: When loaded into Google Earth, the track is usually attached to the ground. To see the real flight path, right-click in Google Earth on 'Balloon 1'/'Balloon 2' and then select 'Properties', 'Altitude' and instead of 'Clamped to ground' choose 'Absolute'.)
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