Silent Flight. A Balloon Aloft.
By Owen Zupp
The sun is still some time away from showing its face, but amidst the occasional spotlights and the hum of generators the lakefront parkland is a hive of activity. The city of Canberra has been transformed into the focus of a ballooning spectacular and enthusiasts and the general public alike are out in force. And while the sight of more than thirty hot air balloons overhead will be inspiring, there is a good deal that must take place before the skies can be transformed by these craft aloft upon the breeze.
Words of Wisdom and Wind.
White tents populate the green Canberran lawns selling their wares from coffee to pancakes, yet one large marquis is the centre of ballooning operations. Decked out with more than 120 chairs, there is standing room only as pilots and their crews gather for the morning briefing. At the front of the gathering sits the team leading the event. The Flight Director is John Wallington, assisted by his deputies, Steve Ireland and Grant McHerron. The Safety Officer is Gren Putland and the all-important meteorologist is Don Whitford, a retired meteorologist who still performs contract work for Bureau of Meteorology, specialising in aviation and defence weather.
A full briefing of rules and regulations took place before the first day of flying, but each subsequent morning reviews radio frequencies, any administrative requirements and a thorough meteorological overview. Don Whitford displays and discusses the current Mean Sea Level (MSL) chart, showing an inland trough that may lead to instability, and even thunderstorms later in the day. The satellite and radar images herald a fine morning with fog patches in the valleys and only scattered lower level cloud. Still, the balloonists all await their most critical information – the wind.
Unlike fixed-wing pilots that rely upon thrust, balloons call upon the wind for their motive force. It will dictate their launch site and suggest their destination, although every balloon crew is well aware that plans can invariably change once airborne. Presented at 500 foot intervals, the winds are light and from the east, tending more northerly with an increase in altitude. This bodes well for the crews offering a launch from their current position in Canberra with a flightpath past major landmarks, along Lake Burley Griffin towards the open pastures to the west that are best suited for landing.
A few more issues are touched upon including the green flag and siren that will be used to signal that crews are cleared to launch. There is a buzz within the tent which is a blend of camaraderie and excitement. It is time to fly.
Ready to Launch.
The first rays of sunlight are just beginning to glow in the east as the crews begin to unload their baskets and balloons, the latter more correctly known as ‘envelopes’. They range from commercial balloons with a 350,000 cubic foot capacity, or ‘350’, to the more common sporting balloons such as the Kavanagh 77, which logically has a cubic capacity of 77,000 cubic feet. As a function of their size is their ability to lift payload and while the 350s can carry up to sixteen passengers, the 77s can carry from two to four passengers depending upon the number of LPG tanks, or ‘bottles’ that are also on board. Whether it be balloons or fixed wing flying, the age-old compromise of payload versus fuel uplift still exists and calculations need to be made. For the 77, three bottles equate to around two-and-a-quarter hours of flight time, but this varies on weight and ambient conditions.
The envelopes are made of a rip-proof nylon material with a heat treatment on the panels in the top third of the balloon, above what is known as the ‘equator’. The material is similar to that used when making parachutes for skydivers. Lower down, the bottom row of panels and ‘scoop’ are made of Nomex. The ‘scoop’ is at the base of the envelope and helps prevent hot air being sucked out by air blowing across the bottom hole and creating a venturi effect.
One by one the envelopes are rolled out and the baskets laid on their sides in company with a powerful fan in preparation for inflation. Grant McHerron chooses this moment to brief his crew further on various safety aspects including the temporary establishment of barricades around each balloon crew. Behind the candy-striped safety tape, the public watches and listens at a safe distance as the fleet of balloons begin to come alive in a relatively congested parkland. As a consequence, Grant opts to delay his departure until his nearby neighbours are airborne and clear.
The morning’s quiet is now interrupted and intervals by the short, sharp roar of burners as pilots test their units that sit atop their baskets. The noise is accompanied by the spectacular licks of flame launching metres into the dark morning sky. At every turn the park is momentarily illuminated by these mini-volcanos in a spectacular scene.
The fans then come to life giving the first breath to their brightly coloured envelopes that slowly change from dormant synthetic Dacron to a range of partially-inflated shapes. Aside from the conventional balloons, specialist shapes range from caricature heads and an air force helmet to an owl and a seemingly multi-ballooned balloon as featured in the movie ‘Up’.
As his crew hold the entrance, known as the ‘mouth’, Grant walks into the opening of his envelope and checks the cables, ropes and fittings within, just as he has carefully inspected every other component of his aerostat. As with any form of flying, the pre-flight procedures of ballooning are equally important for the safe conduct of flight.
The day has now dawned and a range of balloons sit fully upright, the result of directing hot air from the burner into the envelope. The intermittent roar of burners has become a common backdrop and barely draws a second glance, however, the roar is no longer stemming from the testing of units. It is time for flight and silently, one by one, their tethers are released and the balloons rise into the air. An occasional lick of flame from the burner can be sighted giving a colourful glow to the lower section of the balloons. The sky is coming alive in an incredible fashion, but there are no screaming jet engines or revving piston engines, just a peaceful, beautiful ascent.
Time to Fly.
As the other balloons departed, Grant directs the burner into his envelope and gives it life. Soon it is towering proudly above the basket, its envelope in tiers of yellow, blue, green and orange. All secure, its passengers briefed, Grant gives a sustained burst of hot air into the balloon and it rises into the morning sky a little to the rear of the two blue balloons of the RAAF.
As the parkland and its trees fall away, the buildings of Canberra come into view. The old and new Parliament House, the Australian War Memorial all seen from a new and wondrous angle. At this altitude of a few hundred feet, the world would be rushing by as a blur for any fixed wing pilot whose eyes should be hunting ahead for obstacles and errant birds. But this is a completely different type of flying. Grant is now content with the altitude and his burner falls silent, allowing the balloon to drift upon the breeze. Yet there is no chill to be felt on the face as the balloon was as one with the wind, buoyed like a bottle on the tide. There is no rudder or aileron and the course is at the mercy of Mother Nature, who decides where to push this parcel of air.
With one air force balloon to the left and the popular air force helmet envelope to the right, the former seeks to join his partner. In the crisp morning air, there is no need for a radio call as Grant and the other pilot simply converse from one basket to another in a surreal form of communication. In turn, Grant dips a little and the air force climbs well clear before drifting into a loose formation with his squadron mate in an aerial manoeuvre that bordered on being ballet.
But now there was a slight chill and the lightest of breezes as the craft moves from one air mass into another and the lake now looms ahead. One after the other, the balloons dip down towards the lake and kayakers paddle over to greet them in a meeting of two very fundamental modes of movement. Pilots and paddlers cheerfully exchange greetings as they go about their morning rituals.
Bidding farewell, Grant exercises his burner and climbs the balloon towards 3,500 feet. All the while he monitors the wind via his GPS and pauses at the levels best suited to delivering him safely to the wide open spaces to the west, advising the ground crew via radio of his planned arrival site. The sky is full of balloons, colourful ahead and behind they are silhouetted by the morning sun as contrails above leave tell-tales of a very different type of flight.
As the current tank begins to run low, Grant detaches the hose and refits the brass fitting to another tank that is full of LPG. Aloft for an hour, he still has fuel for more than another hour, although the descending balloons ahead signal that the flight is drawing to a close and for the first time the radio chatter increases.
The preceding balloons are calling in potential hazards for landing ranging from power lines to rocky outcrops as Grant makes for the paddock armed with this information. He slowly releases the hot air through a vent at the top of the envelope to initiate the descent. Slowly the earth draws closer, but a small weather station in the middle of the field causes Grant to pause the descent and drift a little further before finally touching down. The approach is flown within the wind, unlike fixed wing aircraft where headwinds, crosswinds and tailwinds apply. There is no predetermined approach speed, screech of rubber or heaving of reverse thrust – just a bump. And the flight is over.
The safe arrival of the balloon is called into the safety officer for the event and within minutes his ground crew arrive and the process of packing up begins. As one crew member runs from the balloon with cable attached to the top of the envelope, Grant pulls on another rope to open the vent and release the lift-giving hot air. Soon, the envelope is a dormant sleeve that needs to be packed away, loaded on board with the basket and driven away. The ballooning tradition of a post-flight breakfast awaits and Grant and his crew have quite an appetite by the time all aspects of the flight have concluded.
More than a Hobby.
Despite the impression given by the spirited camaraderie and social feel of ballooning, it is supported by rules and regulations like any other form of aviation. Private flying falls under the authority of the Australian Ballooning Federation (ABF) which is a Self-Administering Sport Aviation Organisation (SASAO) like parachuting, gyros, warbirds and a range of aviation entities.
Student pilots must have at least 16 hours of instruction before they can go for their Private Pilot (Balloon) Certificate, noting that it's a certificate, not a licence. Of that 16 hours, 9 must be dual, 15 minutes doing tethered flight and 2 hours of solo flight. Candidates are also required to pass 7 exams with an additional theory exam if they wish to operate below 2,000 feet or 3 miles of a registered or certified uncontrolled aerodrome. The private certificates are issued by the ABF, however, a Commercial Pilot (Balloon) Licence is issued by CASA under the new Part 61 and calls for a minimum of 75 hours flight time. And just like their fixed-wing cousins, ballooning has dedicated Flying Operations Inspectors (FOI).
Other than basic balloon maintenance and servicing, balloons must be maintained by a facility that is approved under the Civil Aviation Regulations, CAR 30. Flight manuals are carried on board and there is a tracking system for each component of the balloon. As with fixed wing aircraft there is the requirement for an annual, or 100 hourly, inspection. The strength and porosity of the envelope is tested as well as a thorough review of the pulleys, ropes and cables. Periodic inspections are further warranted in the event of a heavy landing or an overheat of the envelope that is indicated by various means.
Flight Without Wings.
Ballooning dates back centuries and is a very pure form of flight. While powered aircraft drive through the atmosphere to a destination, the balloon is at one with the air that surrounds it. This may mean that there is a little less certainty about certain elements such as duration and the precise location of the ultimate destination, but it is countered by the sheer wonder of the act of floating upon the wind.
Ballooning is more about the pure pleasure of the act of flight, rather than a mode of transportation - like sailing as opposed to boarding an ocean liner. If the ability to peacefully look back upon the earth and draw in the sights and sounds unhindered by a power-plant is the goal, then taking to the skies by balloon is the magic carpet that can deliver this. It is truly flight without wings.