The sun is starting to come up. There are 18 of us packed inside a “gondola” - a large wicker basket 3½ meters square - which stands in a green field of wheat stretching away to the horizon. Outside the basket a few men and women help with the final preparations. For a brief moment I look away. When I look back the people who were standing outside the basket are now far below us. And as we watch they seem to grow smaller and smaller. The balloon goes up smoothly and quietly and we don’t feel a thing.
It is early morning and we are outside Kibbutz Ruhama in the northern Negev, realizing an (almost) lifelong ambition of my wife. For our 48th anniversary and Ruti’s birthday, we are going up in a hot-air balloon.
Winter is not a steady time for ballooning. Twice the trip was cancelled because of wind and weather. But third time lucky – a beautiful morning and all systems go.
Because of the uncertainty of balloon movements we had decided not to sleep over at a zimmer, which means that we left Tel Aviv shortly after 4 a.m., driving along the dark, almost empty Ayalon. About an hour later we were somewhere in the south, travelling on the long winding roads which lead to the kibbutz. The “hot-air” meeting was set for 5:45 a.m. in deference to the balloon which needs cold earth conditions to give its best performance.
Most hot-air balloon flights begin in the early morning: ground temperature is cool or cold, winds are normally light and thermals (vertical air currents caused by the earth heating up) haven’t yet “woken up”.
Moran Izkovitz is our pilot. Moran trained in Utah, USA, returned to Israel as its first commercial hot-air balloon pilot, and in 2003 formed his own company. Today he also trains others to be hot-air balloon pilots.
First we are taken out to the field – 18 of us in two minibuses – for our flight in what Moran calls the “super jumbo” model – a basket in which 18 people can comfortably stand. The balloon – all 40 meters of it – is spread out across the wheat field. A gigantic fan blasts air into the balloon, then, when the balloon has swollen up sufficiently, propane gas from the burner in the basket shoots out large bursts of long flames, heating up the air inside the balloon, which now floats well above us. Meanwhile the passengers are making friends. A few mention balloon flights in other parts of the world including flights over game reserves in Africa. Amazingly enough we are not the only elderly people in the group.
The trip is enervating. As we go up higher the countryside begins to look more and more like a painting done by a master artist. We see endless stretches of green fields, but no red, the anemones are still curled up in sleep, waiting for the day to heat up. The landscape is broken up by the occasional trees, hills and many curving, swirling lines which sharply etch out the whitish shapes of gullies and dongas*. Here and there, clusters of small 'boulders' move slowly over the green landscape – the backs of grazing sheep. Someone points out a group of running deer startled by the shadow of our balloon almost 13 kilometers away (at this height the distance doesn’t mean much). Five or six deer cover the countryside in tremendous leaps and bounds before vanishing from sight. Peeping over the side of the basket we see the 'toy' houses of the kibbutz grouped together in an uneven landscape.
Everything is green. The winter rains have been good – we hear that even the Kinneret is above the bottom red line.
We are now drifting at 4,500 feet. Moran pulls the cords on the sides of the balloon according to the direction in which he wants the balloon to go, while he explains what we are seeing and the physics and statistics involved in our flight. The balloon, of course, gets first priority and as the air cools down so Moran interrupts his explanations to work the propane burner which shatters the quietness with loud woofing bursts as it blasts out a long flame. He also consults the instruments he has about him and is in continual contact with the ground crew.
Even here, far from the cities, we see a line of pollution – temperature inversion keeps the long smoky-brown man-made mess floating below a ceiling beyond which it cannot penetrate. We continue to climb.
After an hour of floating in different directions, but with Ruhama as our center, we come down to land. We brace ourselves as the wicker basket thumps down reasonably quietly in another part of the wheat field 13 kilometers away. Not far from where we land, in the middle of the open and endless stretch of green, is a table covered with a white cloth, and rows of chairs on both sides. The table is 10 meters long, and on it is a huge Israeli breakfast. But first comes the champagne – a tradition which has grown up in the world of hot-air balloon flights – and we all drink a toast. Our minibuses will come to fetch us later on, taking us along a small winding dirt road and restoring us to civilization.
In 220 CE so we read, the Chinese used airborne lanterns for military signalling. There is even speculation about balloon flights going further back than this – but this sounds like a lot of hot air without base or ceiling.
What we do know is that from the 18th century onwards the hot-air balloon made tremendous leaps, both forwards, backwards, upwards and, hopefully not too hard, downwards. The first recorded flight was in 1709 when a tethered hot-air balloon went up 4.5 meters, suitably impressing King John V and the Portuguese court.
However, the world had to wait until September 1783, when scientist Pilatre de Rozier launched the first untethered (free-flight) hot-air balloon and its first passengers – a sheep, a duck and a rooster. They stayed in the air for 15 minutes (the time is open to discussion) before crashing to the ground (also open to debate since elsewhere it is written casually that they landed safely).
Human passengers waited for another two months, when a Montgolfier balloon sailed on a 20-minute flight. The balloon came down in a field 24 kms from Paris, where it was attacked by terrified peasants who destroyed it. The balloons of those days were made of cotton or silk stretched over a rigid egg-shaped wooden frame.
At first the Montgolfier brothers believed that they had discovered a new gas which was lighter than air. Their gas was, of course, air, which becomes more buoyant as it is heated. The balloon rises as the hot air in the balloon becomes lighter and less dense than the surrounding atmosphere pushing against it.
Two years later a Frenchman, Jean Pierre Blanchard, and an American, John Jefferies, crossed the English Channel. They almost fell into the channel when their balloon started losing altitude, and they had to throw out all their ballast and nearly all their clothing to stay in the air and finish the flight in a reasonably respectable manner.
But it was only in the late 1980s when the hot-air balloon really came into its own with a crossing of the Atlantic – 2,900 miles in 33 hours. More than 10 years later the same team, Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand, crossed the Pacific. They travelled 6,700 miles in 47 hours at speeds of up to 245 mph.
By then hot-air balloon travel was becoming fashionable. Fire-resistant material was now used to protect the vulnerable open mouth of the balloon, and a liquefied gas (propane) could be stored in large easy-to-use cylinders in the basket.
Today ballooning is an active sport all over the world from as far afield as China and South America, and including places like Slovenia, Turkey, Hungary, Gauteng (South Africa) and many cities in Europe and the United Kingdom. Israel has, of course, joined in this development, and there are three companies in the country.
And just by way of a footnote: Ruti is spending nights at the computer investigating ballooning over Cappadocia; the tentative date is May. See you then.