Reply To: Let’s have some balloon flight stories

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I’d like to add another story. A few people from the British Balloon & Airship Club went to fly at the first-ever meet in Russia, in the early 1990s. It was in Lithuania, and it had been agreed that Russia would let Lithuania become independent, although they were (at the time) still in charge there.

It was a 10-day meet, encompassing two weekends, and a couple we knew, Rob & Julia, said they flew every single slot, morning and evening. The retrieves were done by Russian Army 6×6 off-road trucks, and navigation was made difficult by the fact that key things like airfields were not marked on the maps for security reasons (!).

They had space in the basket for passengers, and their rule was: “Children first, shady apparatchiks back of the queue”. The Lithuanians went wild with delight.

Anyway, towards the end of the meet, their interpreter/minder approached with a diffident-looking grey-haired bloke, and explained: “This man cosmonaut! He has flown everything in Red Air Force, and also Soyuz, but he has never flown in balloon. Is OK?”

They agreed it was indeed OK, and took him up. He watched them closely as they operated the controls (basically, burner for up, dump valve to let hot air out to go down).

I ought to explain that you’re not drifting along silent for much of the time, You’re always putting short bursts of burn on, to keep the envelope at the right temperature, to maintain altitude.

Anyway, the cosmonaut (who, unusually, didn’t speak much English), asked if he could take control, and they shrugged and let him, and he maintained height perfectly. Then he pointed to a very small field ahead, and asked: “I land there?”

They said it was a very small field, but thought what the hell, if he cocks up the approach, we’ll simply climb out and find somewhere else….

And he flew it down, in a perfectly executed series of steps (burner off, let it descend, arrest the descent with a burn, let it cool and drop again, arrest the descent, etc etc) and plonked it plumb into the centre of the field. They were amazed. OK, so he was an ace pilot, but a balloon is like nothing else. Or so they thought…..

When their minder caught up in the retrieve truck, they expressed their admiration and also surprise that he knew how to do such a textbook descent.

There was a rapid-fire exchange in Russian with the beaming cosmonaut, and then the minder explained: “This man trained on Russian lunar landing simulator for Russian moonshot that was cancelled after Apollo 11. He say descent in balloon exactly the same technique.”

Which, if you think about it, it would have been….

Oh, and there was one solitary Russian balloonist there with a home-made balloon made of plastic sheets heat-welded together, and a home-made basket under it. Like a gigantic bin liner. He sat under the envelope with a large weed burner which he waved around to heat the thing up.

The other balloonists were mightily impressed, and to a man (or woman) refused all invitations to be a passenger in it. Some Yank apparently bought it on the spot, and it’s now in a museum in the US somewhere.

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