By Raisa Wickrematunge and Abdul H. Azeez – Photos by Abdul H. Azeez
It is approximately 7 am, and we are taking off. At this point, usually the safety video would be playing and air hostesses handing out hot towels. But this is no ordinary flight, for our stoic pilot Justin is going to be manoeuvring a hot air balloon through the skies.
This is the inaugural flight of the fourth annual Sri Lankan Balloon Festival, which brings together aviation enthusiasts from all over the world. From Alaska to Japan, flags from various nations flutter in the light winds.
Flames from the burner hiss loudly at intermittent intervals. The heat emitted is slightly uncomfortable to the novice, although Justin appears unmoved.
Apart from that, there is no sound as the balloon rises effortlessly. No bumpy turbulence on this flight.
Eventually, we are flying at about 300 feet, high enough that the paddy fields resemble pieces of patchwork in a quilt. The balloon we are in is built to accommodate around 20 people. Some of the others are much smaller, made for solo flights. These soar high above us, while some dip down to skim the treetops. The view, needless to say, is spectacular. Sprawling tanks glint in the morning sunlight. A white temple stands out against the surrounding greenery. In the distance, mountains are outlined in mist. At one point, we are low enough to spot herds of deer darting through the trees.
This is a totally different experience to normal flying. You are no longer shut off from the surroundings. No peering through narrow windows — the view is panoramic. It is close to the flying dreams many people have. The sense of calm is certainly the same. Nine brightly coloured balloons make quite a spectacle. Below us we can make out people gazing upwards, open mouthed. School children clamber onto their rooftop to watch us pass.
There is no perfectly charted course when ballooning. We floated where the wind took us. Landing required finding a large patch free of criss-crossing electrical wires, buildings or roads. Eventually Justin discovered a likely looking field, where the balloon gently descended. We touched down with barely a bump, though some speedy ducking was necessary as we passed through the trees. Once we had touched down, a ground crew swooped in from nowhere to pack the precious balloons away. The people living near the field did not seem to take offense at our sudden intrusion. In fact there was soon a crowd of the curious surrounding the balloonists.
Overall, the experience was more serene and even more interactive than flying a commercial airline. But it’s not all sunny skies. To fly at all the weather and wind pattern has to be right. Ballooning is quite costly, although there are special concessionary rates (USD 100 on weekdays, USD 130 on weekends) offered during the time of the Festival. Flying in Sri Lanka can also be quite challenging, with trees and electrical wire to contend with. Yet the experience is worth every effort. It’s easy to see why people would want to fly this way on a regular basis.