A heavenly smithy for the counts of the Urals
31.05.2011 — Analysis
Hot-air balloonists held their first-ever competitions in the Sverdlovsk region, and ten teams from Ekaterinburg, Kamensk-Ural, Tyumen, Khanty-Mansiysk, Perm, Kungur, and Moscow got a view from the sky. Correspondents from "RusBusinessNews" climbed into one of the baskets so they could give their readers a glimpse of the beauty of the earth below them.
The Sverdlovsk region is hardly overrun with ballooning competitions. Unlike the devoted aeronauts living in Velikiye Luki, Ryazan, and Kungur, the Central Urals didn't even have its own sports federation for hot-air ballooning until 2009.
But now Stanislav Aleksin, the vice president of the Russian Federation for Aeronautic Sports, tells "RusBusinessNews" that they have one event scheduled after another. "We need to have as many high-level competitions as possible in the city, if we're going to attract ballooning teams to Ekaterinburg. That way pilots won't have to debate whether they should come to the Urals or go somewhere else". For now, the organizers of the competition are enticing the aeronautic teams with the promise of free accommodations and complimentary propane.
Before every competition, the pilots gather at the airfield in Loginovo (50 km. from Ekaterinburg) to spread out their survey sheets and maps and to get their updates from the meteorologists and their assignment from Andrei Vertiprakhov, the sports director. Then this friendly convoy heads off to their starting point.
Unlike other sports, in hot-air ballooning the most spectacular part of the competition is not the end, but the beginning of the race, when all the balloons lift off together into the sky. They could end up landing almost anywhere - there's no way to guess. Everything depends on the force and direction of the wind and the pilot's experience. Nor is it easy to watch them accomplish it. Most of the landings in some way involve a marker (an 80-gram bag of sand a half-meter-long ribbon) that the teams must throw as close as possible to the goal. And that goal doesn't have to be in a road. The judges take a look at the meteorological conditions and use that to decide where to toss a few goals (crosses) all along the route, which is many kilometers long.
The summer starting times for the balloon races are not ideal for fans who like to watch these inverted raindrops float through the sky, because the flights are scheduled for early morning or evening. It's too much hassle to try to fly during the day. And it gets crazy up in the air, far from the sun-warmed earth. Rising and falling air currents reach speeds of 20 meters per second, which is four times faster than the vertical cruising speed of the balloon. This can cause the balloon to either get sucked into a cloud or fall to the earth.
It takes about half an hour to completely unpack and assemble all of a hot-air balloon's equipment. Then the passengers in each pilot's team take their places in the balloon's gondola, which is theoretically designed for two, although they manage to squeeze in four.
Once in the air, a balloonist's best friend is his GPS, which helps him navigate. The GPS uses a satellite to provide coordinates, direction of movement, speed, time, and lots of other important data.
It's quite a strange sensation once one is in the air. The balloon and the wind move together as one, so there can be no sensation of movement at all although one is up quite high. Some balloons are flying higher and some lower, but almost everyone in unison overshoots the marker and flies past the goal. The shifting direction of the wind could be blamed for that, but this didn't seem to bother our pilot, Vladimir Mikhailov from the Conquerors of the Sky club (Kamensk-Uralsky), in the least. He was almost constantly comparing the data from the GPS and the map and analyzing the performance of his competitors, but he still managed to find time to try to explain how it all worked.
It turns out that balloonists are an electrician's worst nightmare. A basket can easily pull down an electrical line during a botched landing, which in a worst-case scenario could result in an electric shock.
The best place to land is on a highway where the team can come by with a car and trailer to pick up the balloon and gondola. Balloonists in the Urals have nicknamed Mikhailov - the King of Trailer Parking. Seven times he has managed to land his basket right into the trailer.
Of course, such a precarious landing requires completely windless conditions, otherwise the ballooning crew is in for some unforgettable moments while attempting to land. The balloon drops the gondola on the ground, then picks it up again with renewed force, and the basket lurches to the side before again settling down upright. The most important thing is to grab hold of anything that's more or less firmly attached to the basket and wrap your arms and legs around it tightly. Otherwise you might find yourself being tossed out during all the commotion.
After his first flight, a novice aeronaut has completed his rite of passage and he is finally granted the title of "count." Of course today it's just a symbolic honorific. It was King Louis XVI who granted the conquerors of that time the title and the land they flew over.
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