Flying Low & Close in a Balloon

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Tricky Flight Plan

The pilot expertly guides the airship among the eerie pinnacles of Göreme Valley in Cappadocia, coming so close that passengers can touch them, but not so close that the balloon does. The skill is simply amazing.

It's all about estimating the future.

Balloon pilots turn the balloon's burners on and off, and it may take several minutes for the blast to take effect, so they must have an exquisite sense of all the conditions around them.

It's also about knowing the winds, and being able to estimate how they will change as the sun warms the air. As a pilot enters a valley, the winds may be anabatic (rising up a valley or slope), but may change to catabatic (descending) in a matter of minutes. If the pilot estimates the winds wrong, the balloon may stop in dead air, or reverse course, making for a less scenic ride.

Everything matters: air temperature, time of day, the land's latent heat, the moisture content of the air.

Only a very experienced pilot can keep track of it all and guide the balloon on the best course. A good pilot is an artist of air.

"See that guy over there?" the pilot asked as we floated on, pointing far across the Cappadocian landscape to a narrow valley with a balloon floating down it. "He's going to go down that valley and stop. And then it will be boring for the passengers."

As we floated along, I watched the prediction come true: the faraway balloon floated down the narrow valley, then just hung at the end in dead air, unable to move. Boring! (Not to mention a waste of money.)

That pilot didn't know the winds.

We floated on, over the valleys, over the towns, marveling at the landscale, and landing just where our pilot, an Artist of Air, had predicted.

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