The dream of riding a balloon

ZELL AM SEE FROM ABOVE – BALLOONALPS 2018

Why do we say that we ride a balloon and not that we fly a balloon? After all, we fly through the air, or not? This is one of the questions I have always had about ballooning. Not anymore. The question has been answered; a balloon rides and doesn’t fly – as simple as that, end of and full stop. Perhaps it is because ballooning is the quietest, noblest and most stylish way to move through the air. I took a closer look when I visited balloonalps 2018 in Zell am See-Kaprun in February.



BALLOONISTS‘ days start early

I meet my “balloon rider” at the Zell am See Airport at 8:30 am. First comes the introduction and then the check-in. Peter Flaggl is a pro and also organiser of the Balloonalps event. But an important information in advance – luckily, I was informed early enough – passengers should wear warm clothes, warm shoes are especially important. The lower part of the basket gets quite cold especially during winter rides. The upper body is kept warm nicely by the burner which heats the inside of the basket quite well.



INTRODUCTION, HELPING AND OFF WE GO

The balloon is on the ground in front of us and stretches across approx. 30 metres. You cannot even imagine what dimensions this will reach soon. Peter first blows cold air into the balloon. The cold air is then heated by the burner. The 500 PS blower really gets the balloon going; it almost seems that it is quite happy about the warm air on this cold day in February. The balloon gets slowly bigger and soon stands straight. The balloon is ready to go as soon as the air inside reaches approx. 100°C.


ALL ON BOARD, WE ARE TAKING OFF

A hot air balloon is not a high-speed train – it takes its time. Which is not too bad as I am an interested passenger and want to know everything and want to help too. Anyway, it’s too cold for being lazy. Our main objective today is approx. 3.500 m above us. Up there are strong winds which will drive us forwards. Many, me included, believe that a balloon cannot be steered. This is true in part because there is no steering wheel or control stick. But the expert knows exactly in what height the winds are waiting and calculates today’s route or destination based on that. For this, he uses his experience, knowledge and exact weather forecasts. On good days, you can reach a height of up to 5.000 m. Up there are the strongest winds, and you can even attempt to cross the Alps if the north wind is good. But today’s destination is a bit closer; we are on a ride into the Gasteinertal Valley. And off we go.



THE GROUND BENEATH THE BASKET DISAPPEARS

We climb steadily, leisurely and in silence, only the burner makes a whistling sound when it blows the hot air into the balloon. Having left behind Lake Zell and the airport, we climb to over 3.000 metres and reach those winds which will take us across the Raurisertal Valley towards Gastein. What follows now is pure bliss. The day couldn’t be more beautiful, the vista is sensational and I am simply amazed. Peter keeps plenty of distance to the mountains. Turbulences are stronger near mountain ridges and slopes, and we don’t need that.

The view from above to our country’s most famous and highest mountains, with their snow-covered flanks and peaks, is just amazing. This beauty exceeds my expectations and our travelling speed is just perfect for sightseeing. We reach the Gasteinertal Valley after around two hours and are looking for a suitable landing site. Now it’s time to hold on tight because the landing can be a bit bumpy. But Peter is a pro and lands the basket safely and softly on Pongau ground.



PACKING UP, travelling BACK & CELEBRATING

I help of course with the packing up of the balloon. Our escort vehicle has followed our route and is already waiting with the trailer. It takes a bit of time until everything is perfectly stowed away and packed up. We return to the Zell am See Airport, where my aeronaut christening will take place. As it is an aeronaut tradition, I have to set a strand of hair on fire and have to use sparkling wine to extinguish the flames. Well, cheers then. And I get a certificate under hand and seal. Among fellow aeronauts, I am now known as: "Duke Stephan, high above the Tauern riding knight of the sky of and in Zell am See!"

What a cool title! And it is quite becoming! Balloonalps 2018 was a real highlight of this winter and the weather was just perfect. After our ride to Bad Gastein, the participants went on to Saalfelden and took a ride to Goldegg am See on the last day. Peter Flaggl has convinced me with his aeronautic skills. He has been a balloonist for 24 years now and has accomplished more than 4.000 balloon rides during this time.

I look forward to Balloonalps 2019 and hope that I can board Peter’s balloon basket again!