Ever since I read Jules Verne’s book ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ in my youth, I have wanted to fly in a hot air balloon. What could be more timeless and irresistible than floating wherever the wind takes you? Since we moved to Ronda in southern Spain, I have often seen balloons over the town and one day I asked myself “What am I waiting for?” With the current world situation, none of us knows what the future will bring. If we want to do something and it is possible, legal and not too immoral, we absolutely ought to go for it. Or throw our caution to the wind, as was my case. The decision was taken – I was going up in a hot air balloon at the first opportunity.
I contacted two Andalucían companies that fly hot air balloons and immediately heard back from Glovento from Granada, who would take me next time the conditions were suitable and they had space in their basket.
The following week brought gale force winds, but then the seemingly eternal summer returned and the date was set.
Pre-sunrise take off
I show up at Ronda’s Féria ground with the other 5 passengers at 7.30 on a Saturday morning. The pilot, Santiago Vale Correa and his helper Juan are already there with the rig on a trailer. It is still dark as they evaluate where the take-off should take place. Juan lets a regular helium party balloon into the air and Santiago follows it with eagle eyes, conscious of its every move. Since this type of flying is completely weather dependent, it is essential to be able to read the different wind currents and predict how they will evolve.
Santiago decides that we will take off from a farm field a bit south of town. It is dawn by the time the 25-meter-long balloon is extended, shackled to the basket with ropes and cables, and inflated by a fan and a couple of large propane burners. They are required because even our relatively small balloon contains a staggering 150.000 cubic feet (4245 cubic meters) of hot air. But that is also all that is needed – hot air!
The principle, apparently called Archimedes, describes how the balloon’s buoyancy is determined by the difference in the air temperature inside and outside the fabric membrane. When the temperature rises inside the balloon, the air density becomes lower than the colder air outside the balloon, which makes it rise. The balloon mouth does not need to be enclosed, as hot air always goes up. The maximum legal operating temperature for the balloon is 120°C, which is considerably lower than the melting temperature of nylon and other modern synthetic balloon materials, which is around 230°C.
The concept is so simple that even I can understand the science behind it, which I cannot say when I am seated in a Jumbo Jet. While the flames that shoot out seem to make some of my co-passengers nervous, I am even more excited about the forthcoming ride.
It dawns on me that this type of air vessel hasn’t changed much in the past couple of centuries. The classic knitted rattan basked is still preferred to other more modern materials, as the basket needs to be light and strong, yet flexible for landings. Both the top frame of the basket that we will hang over and the footholds made to ease the climb into the basket, are made of leather. It is truly beautiful and in my eyes could go straight into the latest travel collection of Louis Vuitton.
The balloon itself hasn’t changed much either. The traditional inverted teardrop shape is still the most common. Standard balloons like ours are called Montgolfier after its inventors and is dependent on hot air, while solar-balloons use black fabric to attract the heat of the sun. The largest producer of hot air balloons is still the UK, but they are receiving strong competition from Spain. The company Ultramagic has become one of the world’s biggest balloon producers, ever since the three young Catalonian entrepreneurs who started it made their own balloon to follow Jules Verne’s flight over Africa in 1978.
The fabric of the balloon is divided into 4 to 24 panels, sewn together with structural fabric tape that can take the weight of the basket. Originally the fabric was cotton, but nowadays, synthetic alternatives such as nylon or Dacron are used. The top lid of the balloon has vents that can let out hot air to slow down an ascent or start a descent. The balloons also have a couple of side vents that are used for basket rotations. While the cotton could rip on the first flight, today’s balloons last between 400-600 hours before they are retired, depending on air temperature, height and the weight it carries. The balloons are inspected annually or every 100 hours, depending on which comes first. The smallest balloon, the solo CloudHopper, is only 600 cubic metres, while the biggest hot air balloons can take up to 32 passengers. I prefer our own comfy globo.
The art of flying a balloon
After the hot air has brought the balloon into a vertical position, we are ready to board. I notice that the husband of one of the passengers who is standing back on the ground crosses himself. We rise so smoothly that it is almost undetectable, and suddenly the ground crew are the size of ants. Inside the basket a silent awe prevails. I stand beside Santiago so I can interview him during the ride. I start by asking why he became a balloon pilot. “It was the balloon that found me” he jests. He had always enjoyed doing extreme sports. One day he met a balloon and it was love at first flight. Now he has been a professional pilot for over 20 years.
By the way, it is not as easy as it might appear to steer one of these contraptions. Like any other pilot of air travel, balloon pilots have to be specially qualified. For their specific type of vessel there are schools in Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona, and Andalucía now has some 15 authorized balloon pilots. Even if you have the necessary certification, you cannot take passengers with you or work professionally until you have flown 100 registered hours.
Santiago tells us that hot air balloons are restricted to flying up to 300 meters over Ronda. Otherwise, I have read that they can fly to extremely high altitudes (the world record is 21.027 meters) and for very long distances. When Per Lindstrand and Virgin Record’s Richard Branson flew from Japan to Northern Canada in 1991, they had constructed the biggest balloon of all time, 30 times bigger than a regular balloon and higher than the Statue of Liberty. Even though Jules Verne’s book from 1873 was a piece of fiction, the world record was broken in 1999 when Bernard Piccard and Brian Jones flew uninterrupted around the world in a mere 20 days!
The pilot can make all the difference on a flight, as we get to observe. A balloon from another company flies at the same time as us, taking off just a little further north. Immediately, their balloon starts drifting away from the town. The pilot tries to change course, but the balloon rises and rises and the journey’s goal gets more and more distant. “We can decide where we take off from, but we never know exactly where we will land. Everything depends on the wind” explains Santiago.
As such, balloons are completely unique flying vessels. They can only be steered vertically. The only way that they will move horizontally is with the wind. Pilots don’t want too much wind, but not to be completely without wind either, because that will take them nowhere but up. The best flying conditions according to Santiago are early in the morning when the wind conditions are more stable. Otherwise, his ideal conditions are when there are many different layers of air, each with its own wind direction. Hence, flying a balloon is a complicated matter, but an experienced pilot will always try to find a puff of wind that will take the balloon in the desired direction.
Thankfully, Santiago is such a captain. He is as cool as can be and performs every adjustment with the finesse of a surgeon. Other than when he opens the propane burners, the flight is comfortingly quiet. Since balloons move at the speed of the wind (they are the only flying vessels that do this), we do not feel the wind up here either. We fly over a farm and the dogs start barking. Santiago explains that he avoids using the propane burners, as the noise terrifies the hens. In a best-case scenario, they won’t lay eggs for a week. In a worst-case scenario, the shock will kill them. As nobody wants to have a mass death of chickens on our conscience, we wholeheartedly agree with him.
The world’s best view
While we drift towards Ronda, a motorized paraglider circles around us.
We follow our own shadow as we float over Ronda’s Roman bridge, Arab baths and further into the historical part of town.
We hover over the world famous Puente Nuevo Bridge. Directly underneath us lies the Tajo gorge, with classical Spanish buildings literally hanging over the edge. This is probably what some would call a million-dollar view but to me it is priceless. As soon as you are up in the air, you are hooked. You simply cannot help but fall in love with this peaceful and most unique way of experiencing the world from above. It is like the flight brings out our most innocent and almost childlike joy.
Santiago leans over and calls out “Hola” to some people down on the bridge. They are already photographing and filming us, as seeing the balloon from below is pretty cool as well. In his 20 years of flying he hasn’t had a single complaint or passenger with a panic attack, he says. While people often will shake their fists at the noisy motorized paragliders, they smile and wave at our balloon.
The balloon is brought up to 200-meter altitude. The streets and houses look like Lego pieces. Even at this height one notices that the horizon curves, though I assume that those who thought the world was flat never got this high?
Once upon a time there was a balloon
People have always wanted to fly. It is said that the forerunner to the hot air balloon was flying signalling lanterns, which the Chinese army used from about 200 AD onwards. Leonardo da Vinci wrote about and sketched more than 500 ideas for propellers, wings, helicopters and flying balloons. His Codex from 1505 AD was the start of modern aeronautics, though it would take almost another 300 years before humans managed to ascend from the earth’s surface and approach the clouds.
The French brothers Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier started experimenting with balloon air flights in 1782. They discovered that a fabric would billow by putting burning wool and straw underneath it. When the Royal French Science Academy heard about their experiments, these were repeated in front of King Louis XVI in Versailles in 1783. The balloon was over 18 metres tall and 13 metres wide and weighed a whooping 400 kilos, partly because it had giant gilded royal emblems painted onto the balloon. The first passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster that were tied to the basket. Under deafening applause, as well as probably some bleating, quacking and cockadoodledoo-ing, the balloon raised 600 metres into the air before it ripped and landed in a forest 3.5 km from the castle about eight minutes later. After this, the king insisted that they use convicted felons for the first balloon flight with humans. However, the nobles Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis François d’Arlandes pleaded for the honour. This happened on 15 October 1783 (exactly 237 years to the day of the release of this article). The first female pilot, appointed by both Napoleon and later Louis XVIII, was called Sophie Blanchard. Not only did she pilot hot air balloons, but she also specialized in sending up fireworks from the basket right above Paris. Combining an enormous hydrogen-filled cotton balloon with pyrotechnics, one can just imagine how that ended…
An unforgettable flight
For Santiago there is no doubt –safety always comes first. “If there are any doubts at all about the weather, we wont go up. We would rather cancel many times, than risk an uncomfortable flight” confides our pilot. Otherwise the precautions are clear. You can only fly between sunrise and sunset, with a minimum visibility of 3 km and max winds of 10 knots. The balloon has to be equipped with various instruments to measure height, wind, speed, and temperatures, in addition to a GPS and radio to contact the ground crew. As far as passengers are concerned, it is recommended that they are in good health and wear comfortable clothing suitable for the prevailing weather conditions. The balloon companies are insured and these days they must also follow the CoVid protocols of the local health authorities. Glovento is associated with the Spanish Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Aerea and the European Aviation Safety Agency. So everything is in the best of order.
We land as we took off, on a field right outside Ronda and barely feel the little bump as we hit the ground. It has been an unforgettable experience. So when you plan your next trip to Ronda, make sure to book a flight, as nothing can top a hot air balloon ride over la ciudad soñada, the city of dreams.
The trip includes safety preparations, a 60-90 minute flight plus breakfast, and lasts a total of 3-4 hours.
Group flight: 200€ per person (with 6, 8 or 12 people)
Private flight: 900€