Flights of Fancy
Floating in a hot air balloon 800 feet above Kuala Lumpur is a spectacularly serene way to experience Malaysia’s bustling capital.
Two feet on the ground, that’s how I’m happiest. I’ve never been comfortable with flying. My artsy head battles to trust the mechanics of planes, particularly when turbulence is involved, and I regularly check the flight route map to assess the feasibility of rescue possibilities, should a rescue be needed.
Yet here I am: The sun’s just rising over Kuala Lumpur and I’m about to climb into a hot air balloon and take flight for … well, no one is quite sure where.
“As balloon pilots we can control our height, but when it comes to the direction we go in, we’re at the mercy of the gods,” jokes captain Mohammad Sobri Saad, who’s been flying hot air balloons since 1996.
Really? My grip tightens on my camera as I try to appear calm yet interested; we’re chatting while two balloons inflate, the baskets lying on their sides in the grass. “So, we’re going up, and that’s about as much as you know?” I ask.
Sobri chuckles. “Ballooning is all about safety. I’ve already released a helium balloon so we know what the wind is doing. It rained last night, so conditions are good today, and we’ve done a thorough check of the envelope. It’s going to be a lovely flight.”
“Envelope” is ballooning-speak for the 21,500 square meters of fabric that, along with a gas canister and burner, is responsible for the flight.
It’s not rocket science: Hot air balloons fly on the principle of hot air rising, just as they have since 1783, when they were invented. The pilot regulates the hot air that fills the balloon to an average temperature of 220 degrees Fahrenheit and, as long as the air in the envelope is sufficiently hotter than the air outside, it will fly.
“Wind is air moving from high pressure to low pressure areas,” explains Sobri. “The greater the difference, the faster the wind blows. In Malaysia the temperature differences are smaller, so conditions for flying balloons are calm in the mornings. However, because of our hotter temperatures we can only fly until around two hours after sunrise.”
When Moon, the name given to “my” pink balloon, has inflated and pulled the basket upright, I clamber in next to Nur Atiqah Khairudin, captain of my flight.
With a whoosh of the burner, Moon gracefully lifts us up and the ground slowly drifts away. “So, you don’t know where we’re going?” I ask as casually as I can muster.
“No,” Atiqah smiles. “It’s actually what I love most about flying, that thrill of not knowing where you will land. No matter how often you fly, every day will give you a different experience.”
Atiqah is one of the pilots at My Balloon Adventure, a family business started by her late father, one of the first balloonists in Malaysia. As well as organizing the MyBalloonFiesta each spring, every morning they take guests into the airspace near Kuala Lumpur, taking off from different places depending on conditions and regulations. Sometimes they fly right over Putrajaya, a city just 15 miles south of the capital that’s known for its beautiful late 20th-century architecture. Seeing the pink-domed Putra Mosque, surrounded by a lake, from the air is utterly breathtaking, says Atiqah.
Today, however, we’re lifting off from the equestrian center at the Universiti Putra Malaysia; we’ll be flying over farmland and palm plantations, looking down on cows, as well as commuters heading into the city.
“I really like for things to be in my control, but flying forces me to let go because I cannot control the wind direction,” explains Atiqah. “When I fly in the mornings, the rest of my day becomes calmer.”
I begin to understand what she means. There is something incredibly peaceful about moving with the breeze and I settle into the flight, thrilled to watch mist rising from dips in the land and to have a drone’s-eye view of trees, pastures and grazing cattle.
The flight is so smooth, so serene, that I wonder whether the ballooning industry has any necessity to innovate. It turns out, they do: While a wicker basket will last a lifetime, the life span of an envelope is limited to around 450 flying hours in cooler, drier climes, and just 250 hours somewhere hot and humid like Malaysia. “Manufacturers continually try to create a fabric that can withstand higher temperatures and allow for longer flights,” says Atiqah.
The sun’s rays are strengthening, so our air time is almost up. We’re flying lower now as Atiqah looks for a place to land. Treetops become larger; we fly over a train and the driver looks up at us, blows his horn and waves.
Atiqah spots a clearing on the side of a hill. “When we come in for the landing, bend your knees in case it gets adventurous,” she cautions.
She nudges a lever that controls the burner, pulls on ropes that control the parachute valve — a vent at the top of the envelope — and we slip gently down between some trees. With a light shudder the basket touches the earth and, for the first time in my life, I’m slightly disappointed to have my feet back on solid ground.
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