Seeing the earth from above gives a new perspective on the planet we call home. This is epitomised by the image of earth from the moon captured by the crew of Apollo 8 on Christmas eve, 1968. The evocative image made people realise what we had on earth and how small it was in the universal scheme of things. Hot air ballooning, a more accessible activity that is closer to home, also allows us to (re)discover earth from the air. It is a truly elemental exercise – fire heats air, wind directs the balloon, earth and water influences the wind patterns, as well as providing the backdrop for the flight. The experience generates awe and excitement. No wonder ballooning is such a popular elemental pastime.
The biggest hot air balloon festival in the world is held each year in October in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An unlikely place perhaps, until you learn about the phenomenon known as the ‘Albuquerque Box’. For a few days in early October the wind patterns are composed of northerly surface winds – where cold dense air moves downhill – and southerly winds at height, created by high pressure systems over the Gulf Coast. This complex weather system forms a ‘box’ pattern that potentially allows hot air balloon pilots to take off and land in the same spot.
Elsewhere on earth, balloon pilots usually take off and land in different locations. All pilots have to balance the use of fire to warm the air in the balloon with reading wind patterns. It is a skilful role that started in Paris in November 1783 when the first untethered manned hot air balloon flight was performed. Since that time countless people have experienced the awe and excitement of hot air balloons.
My friend Siwan Lovett recently joined this group when she took a hot air balloon flight over Canberra, Australia with her family. She described it “as an amazing way to travel as you just move with the wind currents”. Flying over a landscape with hills also provided valleys to look down into. These landforms would also influence the wind patterns. It’s all interconnected. The following images of Siwan’s flight provide the best record of the elemental nature of hot air balloon. Thanks to Siwan for sharing them.