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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Up, Up and Away

MT
The year is 1993, and an unknown aircraft lands near a small village outside Oryol. It descends on the field slowly, first skimming the ground with its wicker basket, and then with an enormous colorful sphere. As awed locals gather at a safe distance from the site, two hominid creatures in shiny costumes step out speaking in a foreign tongue.

Who knows what might have happened if the translator hadn't arrived in a chase vehicle in time to meet these two British women, who were participating in a hot air balloon competition. Not speaking Russian and wearing lycra leggings typical of early '90s fashion, they must have been a strange sight. One man whispered to the translator, "Can I touch them?" and was at last assured that the invaders were far from dangerous.

As a sport, ballooning is more like chess than skydiving. Rather than embracing the adrenaline rush, pilots have to guide their craft through layers of air currents that vary at different altitudes. By opening and closing burner valves, the balloon operator can control temperature inside the balloon, which causes it to float up or down, while the wind gives it a horizontal direction. Competitions consist of precision assignments such as flying the balloon above a target in an open field and dropping a special marker onto it.

Takeoffs and landings usually occur in rural areas where balloonists have officially received permission to fly. Up until the mid-'90s, floating above Moscow was not forbidden, but after one balloon pilot practically flew across Red Square, the capital became off-limits. Other cities that balloonists like to gaze at from a bird's eye view are Suzdal, Yaroslavl and Smolensk, sites of regular competitions.


Maria Antonova / MT
About 50 local balloon pilots frequently participate in competitions and festivals.
For some balloonists, competing is not a priority: Just being able to float and take in the view is exhilarating. Yevgeny Chubarov caught the balloon bug after helping friends at the Russian Ballooning Federation (RBF) during Moscow's 850th anniversary festivities. He described the sensation of ballooning as "a feeling of disassociation."

"In old war movies there are scenes where the soldier is deafened by an explosion. He continues to run and shoot, but enters a different dimension and becomes disconnected from his surroundings. I get a similar feeling when I'm flying," he said.

There are about 100 balloon pilots in Russia, of whom 50 frequently participate in both competitions and festivals, said Nikolai Ryabtsev of the RBF. Some have their own balloons, and some don't: It costs about $20,000 to sew a good one, and people who don't have that kind of money search for sponsors. Since 1991, when the first significant ballooning event took place in Rylsk, Kursk region, there have been regular ballooning events.

During a flight, the weightless silence is interrupted only by loud bursts of flame, the crackling of the global positioning satellite receiver and people yelling from the ground as if from underwater. Pilots say that some passengers thrash from one corner of the basket to another taking pictures, while others attempt to call every person in their mobile phone address book, gleefully crying out "I am flying! I'm flying!"


Maria Antonova / MT
The view from a balloon basket, floating high in the air above the Moscow region.
Of course, balloons are not all fun and games. Since they are recognized as aircraft, they have registration numbers just like other vehicles, and only licensed pilots are allowed to operate them. In some countries, flying low over cattle herds is forbidden: The noise scares cows so much that they stop lactating. All flights in Russia have to be approved by the Transport Ministry and must keep out of restricted areas. International borders are another consideration: When two Americans floated over the territory of Belarus in 1996, they were shot down. But apart from such incidents, enthusiasts say ballooning is the safest form of air transport.

So smooth is the ride, sometimes it's hard to notice the takeoff.

"There was a man at one of the events who had a terrible fear of heights," said Chubarov. "He would help pilots out but refused to fly. One time he was fiddling with the equipment in the basket, and by the time he looked out, he was already in the air."

Contacts

Russian Ballooning Association, www.ballooning.ru

Aerowaltz Flying Club, 491-3711/2900, www.aerowaltz.ru

One hour in the air costs 15,000 rubles for a three-person balloon, or 30,000 for an eight-person balloon.

Pilot certification courses include flying theory and practice (15 flying hours) and cost 73,350 rubles.