18.12.2006 "Meridian" №30/2006

It can't be helped, but I enjoy surrealistic pictures and non-standard situations. Fancy this one: The sun is setting, and you are observing this from three hundred meters above the earth, standing in the wicker basket of a balloon.
Something keeps puffing and blowing from time to time somewhere above, somebody keeps blowing a horn, and your neighbour nudges you in the ribs: look, there are ostriches down there! In a word, my maiden aeronautic attempt can be considered successful. But let me tell you everything from the very beginning...

We set out from Kyiv to Chaika aerodrome in the town of Makariv. The aeronauts had already obtained a detailed fore­cast, including wind speed, direction, and so on and decided where we would begin our journey. Our cars were crammed full of the required gear as we set forth to the chosen destina­tion. We, their would-be passengers, sat and quietly and anticipated the flight.

After a short pre-flight briefing, the gear was unloaded. This gear included wicker baskets, gas cylinders, burners (gas rings), and the balloon itself, which was unfolded carefully. Then began the process of inflating the thermal aerostats (this is the balloon's official name). They did this by laying it on its side and slowly filling it with air. Then they attached a basket to it. It was lifted gradually by means of ropes. Finally, they begin to heat the air. Meanwhile, other balloonists were also preparing their crafts...
The first balloon to lift off was «manned» by the only woman-pilot, Tetyana Beidyk. The others were quick to follow. We took our places in basket. When we started climbing, we did not even notice when had taken off, because the start was so smooth. The pilot pressed the handles of the gas ring to rev it up. We gained height. The rectangles of the fields, houses, yards, and people become smaller. Suddenly, we discovered we were flying over an ostrich farm.
«Why am I not scared?» I asked the pilot, Denis Volodin.

«Why should you be scared? The wind is not so strong,» he replied.
It's true, the wind is weak, and in a small basket (which does not even reach your waist and is a little tight to hold four people), it is surprisingly cosy under the enormous dome of the balloon. The pilot communicated with the flight dis­patcher using a portable radio transmit­ter, listening to the chatter among the other balloons as if he were a taxi driver. The neighbouring balloons drifted near to ours. The general course was 20-40 degrees to the southwest. In the rays of the setting sun, the balloons looked proud and bright, almost festive.
«What is the general peculiarity of balloon flights?» I kept asking the pilot ques­tions.
«Thermal aerostats can stay in the air for up to two-and-one-half hours. The maximum height they can achieve is around 5 km,» Denis said. In our region, they can fly only early in the morning or before sunset. In the daytime, they run into «thermals,» hot blasts of air that spin upwards. The balloons move at the speed of the wind, and they can't turn left or right. Instead, they move up and down (due to the warming and cooling of the air inside the balloon, which pilots regulate by means of their gas-ring). The pilot's task is to catch the appropriate gust, which will take the balloon in the right direction. But that is not easy to do. Neither is landing a balloon, because you have to consider how the car will be able to access the point of landing to pick up the balloon at the end of the flight.

When we landed, it was as smooth as when we took off, it seemed very simple and natural. The crew started packing up their air vehicles immediately. We, who enjoyed a balloon flight for the first time, reflected on what we have seen. While the balloon was loaded into the car, I ask Vyacheslav Gardashnyk, Vice-President of the Aeronautics Federation of Ukraine, about modern aeronautics and its admirers.
«At the end of the eighties, it began to rise in popularity around the world. I think it will become even more popular over the next ten years, since old aeronau­tic traditions are complemented with the latest technologies. Aeronautics is now practiced in thirty-nine countries, in some of them very actively. For example, in the USA there are about ten thousand thermal balloons, and in Germany, about three thousand. This is irrespective of the fact that it is a very expensive sport. A balloon costs no less than thirty thousand dollars.

«Those who would like to do a balloon flights are numerous: people looking for new experiences, romantics, those who want to propose marriage right in the air, chil­dren who chirp with delight, tourists who long to admire the city from above... In par­ticular, such services are offered in Milano, Berlin, Paris, Pompeii. Tourists are offered an 'air-lift' — gas aerostats with a gondola that can house twenty to thirty people per flight. Balloons fly over the national park in Kenya, where their passengers can watch wildlife. In addition, in many countries there are aeronautic fiestas where balloons of unusual shapes are gathered — beer cans, motorcycles, air castles, Mickey Mouse, and coca-cola bottles. As for competitive aeronautics, that is another business.»

According to Vyacheslav, Ukraine doesn't have nearly as many thermal aerostats as other nations (only 22 so far), but three Ukrainian pilots are among the top 100 in the world. There is also an aeronautic school in Feodosia, whose graduates receive a diploma qualifying them to become a thermal aerostat pilot. There are also interesting flight areas where competitions are conducted on a regular basis in Ukraine. They include Svyatogir'ya in the Donetsk region, Crimea, Kyiv region, and Kamyanets-Podilsky. By the way, it is in Kamyanets where we repeatedly arranged an unprecedented action — a flight of several intercon­nected balloons under the bridge. In a word, there are enough people in Ukraine who are interested enough in balloons to fly them professionally.

Having loaded all of the balloon's components back into the cars, we began the drive back to Kyiv. We were lucky enough to sit next to the pilots. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to talk about competitive aeronautics. «There are World or European aeronautics championships conducted annually, a set of national championships, and other competitions,» Yuri Beidyk said.

These are competitions of pilots. Sometimes they compete together with navigators. The one who is better at navigating the balloon, understanding weather conditic and thinking quickly wins. There are different exercises at competitions: «maximum distance,» where you try to co the longest distance in the shortest amount of time; and «m imum distance,» where you try to maintain a given positi for a set period of time. There is also a competition tl requires pilots to fly as close to the points marked on a map possible and to mark their progress by dropping little sail filled sacks with ribbons attached. Flights from one count to another are also arranged often. We, for example, cross the Ukrainian-Polish and Ukrainian-Russian border.
When we got back to the city, those who flew the balloon for the first time were asked not to leave. Something mystej ous and solemn supposed to start. One of pilot was said remind briefly how aeronautics started.

«In 1783, the Mongolfier brothers filled the first balloc with hot air,» said Denis Volodin. The flight lasted ten minute The next time, the first passengers appeared in the basket und( the balloon — a rooster, a duck, and a ram. Apart from the quarrels in the air, the experiment was deemed a complete sue cess. The first people to take to the sky were Pilatre de Rosie and Marquis dArland. After the event, King Louis XVI issue a degree that granted the daredevils the title of nobility.»
Jokingly, this tradition is observed even now. Those wh_ have made a balloon flight go through an initiation _______ (the ritual itself is kept secret) and are granted a title of nobil ity. Therefore, having made my first flight over Kyiv region,__ unexpectedly became a Makariv countess, following the sun I even have a certificate noting this fact.