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The world’s first manned hot-air balloon flight was from a chateau in the Bois de Bologne in Paris in 1783, witnessed by a crowd estimated at a rather Trumpian 400,000, including Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin. This morning we can only muster a few cows in a field off the Maroondah Highway near Mansfield, central Victoria. Still, we’re asked to be mindful of their presence in the pre-dawn gloom, mainly because of what we may step in.
Keeping well back while the craft is “fuelled”, we finally get the boarding call from Global Ballooning pilot Georgia Croft and have to clamber in quickly, passengers being necessary ballast as the balloon rises and rights the basket.
Our snug seven-person craft is positively business class compared with another launchee today. Fellow Global pilot Ronald Kent is taking a spin in his home-made one-person cloud-hopper, which is basically a harness to which is attached a seat and a burner below a bright blue balloon. For the next hour we follow him across the valley that sits snugly below notable ski peak Mt Buller.
Global operated around Mansfield in the 1990s before its founder, ballooning legend Kiff Saunders, relocated the business to both central Melbourne and the Yarra Valley. Now they’re back in what Croft reckons is ideal ballooning country: north of the Great Dividing Range in a low, well-protected valley. She believes they will be able to fly a generous 200-220 days a year, and as well as the usual dawn departures, in winter there’s the prospect of afternoon flights, such is the predictability of the winds.
That’s an appealing option as our firstlight flight is in a chilly 2C, although Croft promises it’s a few degrees warmer “up there”. And there’s always the occasional blast from the burner to momentarily warm the basket, especially when we hit icy wind shear, a situation where breezes from different directions meet. We fly higher to get above it but that
takes us into cloud at about 6000ft (for some reason, aviation still doesn’t use metrics for
The wind shear avoided, we descend for a view, which requires a lowering of the “envelope temperature” by simply letting air out through a small aperture at the top. Soon we’re scooting over fields, looking down on dams, green fields dotted with livestock and paddocks ploughed with pleasing geometric swirls. There’s even a faint rainbow to colour our lofty world.
“Hey, we’re doing 66.5km/h,” announces Croft, who is tracking our movement on a tablet as well as communicating constantly with ground crew Scarlett Saunders about where she’ll choose to land. Sheep know to get out of the way, Croft says, whereas horses can be more problematical as they spook easily. The real issue, however, is powerlines. We’ve been up for an hour but the light is still a bit murky and Croft has her eyes peeled for flimsy poles that will have a virtually invisible
strand of wire strung between them. We’re hovering off the ground – it looks a lot closer, as do the tops of trees – but we’re actually at a very safe 100ft and doing a barely discernible
A field is chosen and we assume the brace position for landing, which is squatting as low as you can, wedging your knees against the basket wall and hanging on to a loop of rope. We put down with the merest of bumps. As ballast, we’re required to stay in the basket until Croft opens the flap and deflation begins. Then we help roll the balloon up, squeezing air out with an action that’s rather like kneading dough. With everything packed in the trailer, we farewell Kent, who is off to pay the farmer for the use of the field, with a currency that’s been de rigueur since those first days of ballooning: a bottle of wine. The French did invent this after all.
Jeremy Bourke was a guest of Global Ballooning and Tourism North East.
by Jeremy Bourke, Weekend Australian