The Slovenia Times

Up, Up and Away!



You may know that the first balloonists were two French brothers, Jacques and Joseph Montgolfier, but few know that the first passengers on a balloon ride were actually a sheep, a duck and a rooster! On 19th September 1783 the Montgolfiers, too nervous to test the balloon themselves, sent up their animal cargo. Of course it was a success and led to the first manned flight over Paris two months later. Since then, hot air balloons have been used for a variety of purposes from weather monitoring to aerial reconnaissance and even as primitive bombers. However, with the development of aircraft, balloons largely reverted back to more peaceful pursuits including their growing use for pleasure flights. Which is why I happened to be floating above Ljubljana one evening in May. As a surprise and 'something different' I had bought my girlfriend a balloon ride as a birthday present. The first thing that strikes you about ballooning is how effortless the whole thing seems. No jet engine, no propeller, no cockpit, just a wicker basket, a hot-air burner and what amounts to a large fabric bag! Once in the air you literally float, and what a wonderful feeling it is to. As someone who doesn't really like flying very much and gets sea sick when travelling by boat, balloon flying came as a pleasant change. It is fascinating how the pilot steers the balloon. Basically all a pilot can do is make the balloon go up and down, so when you set off on your journey the pilot cannot be certain where you will land (this is probably the main reason why balloons never caught on as modes of transport). Once in the air the pilot is only able to control the direction of the balloon by moving up and down until he finds a wind blowing the way he wants to go. Of course I didn't know this beforehand, so when about halfway through our flight we descended to less than 100 metres above the Ljublanica and were literally skirting the tree-tops a few of us were worrying whether we were about to make a splash landing! Of course we weren't, and the pilot had everything under control. He had simply gone down to catch the air current that was flowing down the riverbed in order to take us out passed Vic and Podutik. Mind you, it did make the journey more interesting! One other thing you have to bear in mind if you want to go ballooning, you can only fly first thing in the morning or just before sunset. The reason isn't because balloonists like to get up early. No the reason is that within two or three hours of sunrise and sunset wind speeds are at their calmest and weather conditions most stable (for a perfect balloon ride wind speeds should be no more than 12 km per hour). During the day wind pressures can vary much more and thermals can develop, which although great for gliders, can be very dangerous for balloonists. Besides the pilot, a balloon trip could not take place without a ground crew. The ground crew's job is to help the pilot inflate and deflate the balloon and to follow you when you are in flight so that you can get back from where you land. As for landing, well it's the worst part of the flight. You're moving, there are no seatbelts and so when you hit the ground... yes you hit it with a big thump! Apparently sometimes people watching balloons land often think that the balloon has crashed, as it can be common for the basket to turn on to its side and be dragged along several metres! Fortunately this didn't happen to us, although at one point the basket did teeter on its side long enough for us to think it was going to fall over. Most balloonists who carry passengers end the experience with a champagne toast. Why? Well the story goes that when the Montgolfier brothers made their first flight they landed in a vineyard on the outskirts of Paris. Upon landing local farmers rushed towards them with pitchforks thinking the balloon was something from another world. In order to calm the farm workers down, and prevent them from damaging the balloon, the brothers offered them a bottle of champagne to prove they were French. Believe it or not, Slovenia boasts the most balloons per head in the world, approximately 60-70 across the country as a whole. As well as an annual national balloon championship, there are usually about 8 balloon fiestas a year with the most popular in Moravske Toplice, Ptuj and Bohinj when balloons of all different shapes, sizes and colours take to the sky at once. Slovenia's most experienced and famous pilot is Avi Sorn; a veteran of the sport worldwide who has been flying balloons for over 20 years. Then there is Grega Trcek who has flown in the extreme conditions of both the North Pole and the Sahara desert. They are joined by over 100 more pilots providing plenty of opportunity for would be balloon passengers to take to the skies, and believe me there are few better ways of seeing the beauty of Slovenia than floating effortlessly above it. Go on get airborne!


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