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UP IN THE AIR

T2 SAYS ‘HI’ WHILE FLYING BY THE TAJ MAHAL

The Taj Mahal as viewed from the sky

To fly or not to fly. That was the question when we set out at the crack of dawn for the launching ground. We were in Agra for the Taj Balloon Festival. On offer was the chance to see the monument from up above, while flying in a hot air balloon — an experience that even Emperor Shah Jahan, the man who had ordered the Taj Mahal to be built, did not have access to. But for that to happen, our airship has to fly!

A small balloon, filled with helium and fitted with a strip of LED lamps, held the answer. It would tell us whether the air above was calm or “sporty”. That was how our chief pilot Richard Sandrasagara described turbulence.

At 5.55am, he let the balloon go. It shot up and trembled its way in the direction of the setting moon. The pilots immediately got into a huddle. “It’s very windy up there. You can’t make that out from the ground. And even if we do, the direction of the wind is opposite to where the Taj is,” one of the crew members explained. Our faces fell.
 
 

Balloons on the glow at the Parade Ground, Agra

HOW LOW YOU CAN FLY

I had reached Agra the day before. It was the third day of the festival and when I visited the hotel terrace for dinner, bits and pieces of the conversation from the neighbouring table could be overheard. A dozen balloonists from across the world had been invited to the event, along with three Indians. 

Koen Audenaert from Belgium had brought along a Smurf-shaped balloon. And the discussion centred around the fact that The Smurf had failed to take off that morning. “You must realise that you would be stepping into a vehicle without a steering wheel or brakes or motor. The wind carries us. So we are completely dependent on the wind,” said Johan Vander Meiren, another Belgian balloonist, who with his wife Ingrid has been flying his balloon, Bonafida, for 10 years now. 

Hans and Verena Funk had come with their balloon from Switzerland. “We decorate our balloon with the flags of the countries we have flown in. India’s will be added now,” Verena said. “The best part of a balloon ride is how low you can fly. You can actually graze the tops of trees. In India, people are so amazed and intrigued that it shows on the faces below. In Europe, they look up but that’s about it,” added Hans.

But the seeds of doubt had been planted in my mind about whether I would at all get to fly as my Agra trip was just for a day. So they took me to Samit Garg, the founder and CEO of Sky Waltz, the man organising the festival in association with the tourism department of the Uttar Pradesh government. “Don’t you worry. We will make sure that you get to fly,” he assured me. 

Garg described his company as an “experiential events enterprise”. He was driving from Stuttgart to Frankfurt in 2002 when he saw hot air balloons for the first time. “That vision took my breath away. Do you know balloons are the second most photographed objects in the world after celebrities?” he said. 

Back in India, there was no legal framework then for commercial ballooning. “We started working with the civil aviation ministry to formulate the rules. In 2008, we became the first company to be awarded a non-scheduled operator’s licence,” he said.

Once I finished dinner, Garg introduced me to the chief pilot, Richard, a veteran Sri Lankan balloonist, saying: “You will fly in his balloon tomorrow.”

A view of the ‘other’ balloons from the sky

VICTOR TANGO, HERE WE GO

The chief pilot gets to decide whether any balloon would fly on a given morning. So all eyes were on the bearded figure at the centre of the huddle. A good 20 minutes later his clearance came.

All the crew members immediately got busy with their respective balloons. Generators were switched on, blowers were at full blast, pumping gas into the nylon shapes called envelopes lying limp on the ground. One by one, they reared, like giants waking up from deep slumber, and stood upright, fully inflated.

We had all been handed boarding passes and asked to wait next to our respective balloons. “Every hot air balloon is a certified aircraft with a VT number,” a crew member explained the boarding pass to me. VT — Victor Tango, he repeated when I didn’t catch it — is the call sign for India.

One by one, five of us got into the wicker basket. “Listen up,” Richard said, “Our landing place will be decided by the wind and it is unlikely to be smooth like a runway. Balloons have no shock absorbers. The weight of the basket makes it stop. We can land upright or on the side. Both are normal. Once it’s time to land, stash everything away, bend your knees, hold on to the rope and look at a reference point in the opposite direction of the landing. The landing can be as gentle as a kiss or a bump and drag.”

Who cared for landing when the fun was just starting?! As the basket started to leave the ground, Richard’s voice trailed off: “And don’t get off once we are in the air.” Indeed!

EVERYONE, DOWN

The best thing about being the first balloon to fly is you can watch the rest of them take off from mid-air. “Do not miss the Taj on the other side,” Richard alerted us. The marble mausoleum stood out in pristine white amid a bouquet of green. Our cameras went click-click. “Can you please take us closer to the Taj?” we requested our pilot. He shook his head. “The wind decides our direction. Even if I could, I would not be permitted to fly over the Taj for security reasons. Even aircraft can’t.”

By now, the balloon had flown out of city limits and the houses were replaced by acres of arable field. Where were we headed? “Yesterday, we had landed 31km away from the city. Let’s see where we reach today,” Richard said, preparing for landing. Suddenly, came the command: “Everyone, down.” We dropped on our haunches, stashed our cameras away in pouches hanging from the basket wall and grasped the handle in front of each of us. 

We sensed the balloon quickly losing height. It landed with a thud, skidded at breakneck speed for what seemed like miles on rough terrain and toppled over. None of us panicked as we had been forewarned. 

When we gathered later at the lunch table, exchanging notes on our experiences, all of us agreed that we want to come back. And why not? Ask a balloonist and they will tell you that no two balloon rides are ever the same. Why? Because they never fly in the same direction, or at the same height!

Text and pictures: 
Sudeshna Banerjee
(For details visit www.skywaltz.com)

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