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A DUCK, A ROOSTER, A SHEEP, AND I

Rajen Bali

Our story has all the essential ingredients of a potboiler, plus more. We have a duck, a sheep, a rooster, serious inventing, hot air, heroes, serenity, adventure, world records, poetry, scenic beauty, a personal first-time-in-life, and more.

For me, it all started in Vang Vieng, Laos. I was enjoying a beautiful morning in an easy chair perched in a tiny balcony overlooking a small river, watching the silver mists slowly dissipate to unveil the shrouded green hills. Suddenly, a balloon appeared on the scene, serenely drifting along to add a new dimension to the scenario. I watched fascinated and wistfully wished that I too was in the balloon.

After some enquiries I found that regular balloon flights were available, subject to weather conditions. I promptly booked myself for the next day’s ‘sunrise’ flight. It was supposed to take-off at 7:30 am. There was a little dampener when I was later informed that the timing had to be changed to 5:30 am! “So what,” the excited part of me said.

Next morning, I was waiting patiently in the dark for the pick-up. They came on time and we reached the field as dawn was breaking. It was quite a picturesque spot with mists and clouds playing hide-and-seek with the hilltops. But my attention was drawn to a very large piece of ‘cloth’ lying flat on the ground and some men lounging around talking to a dashing and rather cocky man clad in a very smart red uniform with a baseball cap jauntily placed on his head. He appeared to be in his early 30s and was very confident and self-assured in his manner. He was our pilot. I named him ‘Red’ in my mind. Soon, he started giving orders and the men scampered around putting the equipment in place. A big nozzle was inserted in an opening in the ‘cloth’ which was the envelope of our balloon. Lying in a flaccid state on the ground, it hardly looked impressive, but all changed soon. With a loud hiss and flashing blue flame, the ‘cloth’ started getting  taking shape and in a matter of minutes was an impressive huge balloon, bobbing in the air way above our heads and appearing quite impatient to go, go, go. The pilot walked in to the wicker basket gondola and our group-of-four was helped aboard. There were three Brits including a lady with there ages ranging from 20s to 50s, and I. My attention was fixed on Red manipulating some levers which sent flashes of huge tongues of flame into the opening of the balloon. I hardly realized it till I happened to look out, but we were airborne and objects on the ground were fast becoming smaller and smaller and the panorama around us was ever expanding as if a wide angle lens of a camera was on a ‘fast forward’.

What was quite amazing was there hardly any sense of movement as we kept on gaining height and meandered around in the sky. It was all ever-so-gentle. The only sounds were produced by the loud hiss of spurts of flame Red was feeding in to the opening and furious continuous clicking of four cameras. Soon we were at 1000 meters and Mr. Sun was making its spectacular and extremely colorful efforts to make its presence felt, gradually chasing away the mists. The view was absolutely fascinating and even ‘spectacular’ cannot do full justice to what we were seeing and feeling. An absolutely wonderful hour followed till we were descending and the ‘dots’ on the ground turned in to monks, men, women, children, cows and pigs. Even if I make a living of sorts by writing, I cannot really find words adequate enough to describe the fascinating experience. You just have to experience it yourself. What did bother me a little was that being an ex-pilot and having some glider experience too, it was the first time in my life that I was up in the air and not in control!

One of the first matters to intrigue Man must have been the mystery of flight. Seeing birds fly freely in the air Man to wanted to fly. Around 4000 BC, the Chinese invented and started flying kites of many kinds. This enhanced the wish of Man to fly. Over the centuries, many affixed wings of various types to their body in attempt to fly, but failed to take-off. One reason that they failed to fly must have been the absence of a source of energy to power their flight – an ‘engine’. The first successful effort to make an ‘engine’ was made by the ancient Greek engineer, Hero of Alexandria. He worked with steam and pressure and harnessed them to generate energy which powered his ‘Aeolipile’ with rotary motion. But perhaps the most serious work in the direction of flying – alas, only in theory – was done by the genius, Leonardo da Vinci – he also painted, among other works, the ‘Mona Lisa’ – in the 1480s. He made many drawings about the flight of the birds and its mechanical versions. But his ‘Ornithopter’ was never actually invented.

Centuries passed without any significant progress towards the objective of Man flying in the air. Then the Montgolfier brothers of France, Jacques and Joseph – two of the sixteen children in the family- entered the scene. They worked in the family’s paper factory. One day they saw that laundry drying over a fire was rising with smoke. What else will rise with smoke, they asked themselves. Their efforts to rise with smoke failed till the realized that it was hot air which was making things rise. That was the breakthrough. A few months later, on 19 September 1783, they launched their balloon, made from paper and cloth, using chopped wool, horse manure and straw set on fire to produce hot air. Since they were rather nervous, they had as passengers in the balloon, a duck, a sheep and a rooster. Some say that it was a pig and not a sheep. The flight was successful and lasted all of eight minutes with the balloon rising in air and landed back safely.  Emboldened by their success, they approached the king of France, Louis XVI, to view their invention. On November 27, 1783, the hot air balloon was launched in Paris with the King and many others looking on in wonder. This time it was not animals, but two friends of the Montgolfiers, Francoise Laurnet and Pilatre de Rozier, who were on board. As a matter of interest, the word “pilot” is derived from Pilatre’s name. The balloon rose to a height of 500 feet - some say it went up to 6000 feet – and landed safely in a vineyard about a mile away. The rest, as they say, is history.

Though a French chemist, Jacques Charles, had invented a balloon filled with hydrogen in August 1783, there were no major advances in ballooning for the next 150 years. The interest had shifted to winged aircraft. It was only in 1960, when Ed Yost made a balloon of nylon and used propane gas burners to produce hot air. Since then ballooning really too off and there have been trans-Atlantic flights and around-the-world flights. Vijaypat Singhania reached an altitude of around 65000 ft in a balloon in Mumbai in 2005. So, how about grabbing a balloon flight at the earliest possible?

The Irish have a toast for ballooning:

“The winds have welcomed us with softness.

 The sun has blessed us with its warm hands.

 We have flown so high and so well

 That God has gently set us back into

 The loving arms of mother earth.”

Perhaps, you will raise your own toast after a balloon flight.