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Japan's Balloonists Love Air Up There

Enthusiasts like the freedom and peace of the sport, which is growing in popularity. Fatal accidents are rare.

August 03, 2003|Eric Talmadge | Associated Press Writer

HANYU, Japan — The weather-beaten altimeter propped up between the top of a propane tank and the side of our wicker basket reads 2,000 feet and climbing.

The race is on.

Two balloons hang nearby in the clear dawn air, and a dozen or so are rising from the launch site on the festival grounds below. People are down there too but they're too small to see.

Somewhere ahead of us, a "rabbit" balloon trailing a pink banner is headed for an impromptu landing area, where competition officials will get off and lay out two 33-foot-long strips of bright red cloth in an X pattern.

The idea is for the rest of the balloons, the "hounds," to give chase, then drop a marker as close to the X as possible. Each team has three markers, and the one with the closest drop will win.

Simple enough.

Within minutes, however, the two dozen balloons entered in the competition are spread out all over the sky, each plotting a different strategy, seeking to ride a different wind current.

"It's all quite easy when you've got propellers," Keiichi Kojima, a seasoned balloon pilot, said afterward.

"But in a hot air balloon, you have to rely completely on the wind. It's harder than one might think, but that's the fun of it," added Kojima, who was chief judge at this year's Hanyu Sky Festa, one of a growing number of competitive hot air ballooning events in Japan.

The target site turns out to be a riverbank about 4 miles from the festival grounds in Hanyu, a town on the northern outskirts of Tokyo.

It is a close battle.

In a span of 90 minutes, all teams have dropped at least one of their markers, small bags made of biodegradable material -- so there are no complaints about littering should bags be lost.

The winning drop is off by just 14 feet.

Hot air ballooning isn't a lucrative sport.

A customary barbecue after the Hanyu event was nixed so that more money could be diverted to sweeten the prize for the winner, which was still only 100,000 yen, or about $1,200.

The appeal for most enthusiasts is simply the freedom of balloon flight.

In a balloon, you aren't strapped down, or hemmed in. You can rise thousands of feet, or glide just inches off the ground. There is no exact flight plan -- and no way to follow one if there was.

Another big part of the balloon's draw is its simplicity.

Basically, hot air balloons consist of just three main parts -- the envelope, burners to heat the air inside, and the basket for carrying passengers. Setting up is relatively easy, and so is packing up afterward.

Ballooning is usually a team effort, however.

Even if a pilot is flying solo, there's likely to be chase crew in a truck following not too far behind on the ground. The chase crew can warn local landowners of an emergency touchdown on their property, and help pack the balloon for the ride back to base.

For the first-time flier, it's an odd feeling to be so far off the ground and have so little between you and the open sky.

Other than the sensation of rising or descending, there is hardly any feeling of movement -- no wind whips your face, since you are propelled at the same speed. You are the wind's passenger, enveloped in its invisible flows.

There is a strange serenity.

"Ballooning is peaceful. It's fun," says pilot Mitsuru Mori, his hand on a lever controlling the burners directly above our heads. To adjust our altitude, he periodically turns the lever to release a burst of heat and flame with a loud swooshing noise.

"I used to do paragliding," he adds after a moment's pause. "But I got injured, so I switched to ballooning. This is the safest sky sport there is. Nobody ever dies ballooning."

That isn't quite true.

Fatal accidents during recreational ballooning are rare, but they do occur. A Canadian girl was killed two years ago when the balloon she was in caught fire after being picked up by a gust of wind and pushed into three power lines -- one of the most vexing obstacles for a low-flying balloonist.

Still, ballooning deaths generally involve pilots courting danger to begin with.

Nearly 10 years ago, a Japanese trying to make a solo crossing of the Pacific in a hot air balloon crashed into the sea and drowned before help could arrive.

Michio Kanda, the only Japanese who currently holds a ballooning world record, is planning to make the same attempt early next year, though he intends to have a partner fly with him.

"We Japanese don't take enough chances," said Kanda, who has held world bests in duration aloft and distance traveled for several classes of hot air balloon. "We need to challenge ourselves more, to put more value in taking risks."

For most balloonists, landing is risk enough.

In windy conditions, noses, ribs and legs can easily be broken against the poles connecting the balloon, burner and basket or on the hard metal of the liquefied propane tanks when the basket hits the ground.

"I've never been hurt beyond a bloody nose," says Mori, my pilot. "I once had a passenger who was overweight and whose legs broke at impact because they couldn't support her. But that's not a common thing."

Mori maneuvers down to a rice paddy near the river. The planting season hasn't begun, so the paddy is mostly just dirt.

"This will do just fine," he says.

We touch down gently, are tugged aloft again for a moment and, with chase crew members pulling our basket back, come to rest a few yards farther into the paddy.

Within a half hour, as a bemused old farmer who owns the paddy looks on, we have packed the balloon into a big canvas bag and loaded it, the burners and the basket into our chase truck.

All told, our flight lasted 55 minutes.

Our top speed -- about 6 mph.

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