44th IRISH NATIONAL HOT AIR BALLOON CHAMPIONSHIP
To see a modern balloon gliding silently across the sky, with the occasional roar of the burners breaking the silence, invokes romantic dreams and a sense of peacefulness so exploited in the many fairy tale stories of our childhood.
The Viking City of Waterford in South East Ireland this year celebrates its 1100 years birthday and is the host to the 44th Irish Hot Air Balloon Championships, a spectacular display of one of the earliest forms of air travel. This championship is the oldest running in the world and is held every year in different locations around Ireland. Pilots from as far as America, some comming here for the last thirty years, and Europe came to partake in this spectacle and the meeting of friends of like minds.
The early Hot Air Balloons used a basket of burning coal placed under the balloon as the heat source to lift the balloon into the sky. Today, the heat source is far more sophisticated utilizing powerful propane gas burners.
A group of balloonists had gathered in a stubble corn field on the banks of the beautiful River Suir on the outskirts of the Viking City of Waterford in the south eastern corner of Ireland to assess the suitability of a balloon ascent.
Wind speed, altitude, air pressures, wind direction, knots were buzz words as the pilots and crews plotted the course on detailed maps of the small helium filled balloon that had been released to assess the conditions and wind movement high above the ground to see where the wind would possibly take them if they took to the air.
Then, it was all go. Balloons were unpacked from the trailers pilots and crews were busy, busy. You don’t realize the size of these balloons until you see them spread out on the grass as they are prepared for inflation.
The drone of fans blowing cold air into the balloon to begin the inflation process disturbs the quiet surrounds of the stubble field. The balloon becomes even larger creating a carnival of colour and lively activity. At a point when the balloon (the pocket) is reasonably full, the gas burners, with their distinctive roar, take over the roll, shooting two and a half million BTU’s of heat into the balloon cavity to finalise the inflation. In no time at all, the balloons are upright, swaying to and fro in the gentle breeze, poised and ready to take off.
Then, so gently, as if in slow motion, the balloon with its basket of passengers slung below, it lift slowly skywards, the occasional roar of the burners pumping the balloon with more hot air to push it upwards. Such a wonderful sight as they glide gently across the fields, lifting over the trees and getting smaller in the distance as they eventually disappear over the horizon, on their way to wherever the gentle wind will take them.
I was a very lucky person. One of the Pilots, Robin Mercer, invited me to go on a flight with him. Robin and his wife Edith were down from Belfast for the competition. His colourful balloon was a very special one as it was used in the James Bond film “The world is not enough”. The start of my adventure. Taking off from Piltown, about 25 miles outside Waterford City, we flew along the River Suir towards the city. What an incredible adventure. The silence as we glided along with a bird’s eye view of the rich, green farmlands below and the mountainous horizon of the Slievenamon mountains to the west. The calm was amazing as there was no evidence of wind because we were, of course, travelling with it. The occasional blast of the hot burners being fired, adding hot air to the balloon to keep us afloat and disturbing this silence.
There was about another 15 balloons up with us and they provided a magical spectacle as they glided over the landscape, all in the same direction to wherever the wind would take us. People below came out of their homes, the kids were calling and the cattle were not sure what to make of it all.
Off course, what goes up must come down. Robin decided on a line of approach to land the balloon keeping cleat of trees and power cables, seeking a field that had good access to a road so the recovery crew could get to us. Field sorted, a slow descent and finally gently touching firma terra. The breeze took the balloon a few yards further on, dragging the basket until it came to a stop.
We had been up for only 55 minutes. Seemed like 10 minutes. It was nice to be on top of our amazing world looking down on the beauty of our land and enjoying the company.
If you ever get a chance to fly in a hot air balloon….take it.
I inquisitively asked one of the pilots “why ballooning?” “It’s fun, it’s a great social activity and each flight is an adventure, a carefree glide over the countryside to wherever the wind takes me.”
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