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Sabarmati to Hooghly, up above the world so high
- SIX-STATE BALLOON FLIGHT ON 100 YEARS OF AVIATION

It was meant to be the first-ever hot-air balloon expedition to cross the Arabian Sea. But with war clouds gathering over the Gulf rapidly through February, the Indian Army had to settle for crossing the country instead.

A gentle red giant balloon glided over the Hooghly and into Eastern Command Stadium, Calcutta, on Saturday morning. The Trans-India Ballooning Expedition was flagged in at its final destination, having left Ahmedabad on March 1. The team of 13, including flight and ground crew, stopped in Indore, Bhopal, Jabalpur, Ambikapur, Ranchi and Jamshedpur along the way.

“I call it a journey from the Sabarmati to the Hooghly,” smiles expedition leader Major Kumar Bhaskar, also officer-in-charge of the Army Ballooning Nodal Centre, Bhopal. The international “trans-Arabian expedition” will have to wait till the bombs stop raining down on Iraq.

The Army Adventure Unit is behind the 2,000-km, six-state journey, designed to “commemorate 100 years of aviation”. But why are hot-air balloons a part of the Army’s agenda at all' “For us in the army, adventure is a part of life and sports like this bring out the good qualities in the soldiers,” says Brigadier V.K. Chopra.

During the stops on the way, the crew has given free “tethered rides” to interested bystanders to promote interest in the sport, with Calcutta crowds getting a first-hand feel of the action, around 50 feet up, on Sunday morning.

Floating at up to 14,500 feet, held up by a nylon “envelope”, LPG cylinders and a basket, the team has to be prepared for any eventuality. “Five minutes into the air, and you really don’t know what to expect as you can be swept off course by the winds,” explains Captain Arun Aravind. The meteorology coordinator for the trip, Aravind keeps an eye on the global positioning systems, similar to that in an aircraft, and the altimeter.

There is no way of navigating the balloon, and the only way of getting back on course is to alter the altitude to find a wind flowing in the right direction.

Risks aside, the expedition has broken the national record for the longest single flight by over 60 km with the 310-km leg from Jamshedpur to Calcutta. “We didn’t set out to break any records,” grins Bhaskar. “We didn’t have a choice but to keep flying, as we only had weather clearance for one day, after being delayed in Jamshedpur for two days due to storm warnings. So we had to fly the seven-and-a-half-hour journey non-stop.”

Three balloons made the cross-country trip, but at any time, only one was in the air, with two men – a pilot and a navigator -- on board. Though the balloons can accommodate five people at once, fewer people were on board to make room for more gas cylinders. Light snacks, warm clothes, first aid equipment and khukris are part of the gear.

Though balloons may not have a role in combat, such sports will continue to be a priority in the armed forces. “Qualities of leadership, courage and determination are what bring together adventure sports and the army,” signs off Bhaskar, having successfully led his troupes back to base.

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