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Riding the summer hot air in Vilnius

  • 2002-08-08
  • Matt Kovalick
The Lithuanian capital has the right stuff for being a top ballooning venue, as Matt Kovalick reports

Vilnius residents usually take pride in their city's baroque churches and Old Town streets but now they have another reason to gloat. As dozens of hot air balloons filled the skies on Aug. 4, the Lithuanian capital became a center for competitive ballooning.

"There is no other capital in the world that I know of where you can fly over the city in competition," said Cornelis van Helden of the Netherlands, the event director.

People often admire ballooning for its being an elegant spectacle or for round-the-world challenges, but most spectators in Vilnius last week probably missed the pilots conducting complicated tasks such as a "Fly In," a "Hesitation Waltz," or the "Hare and Hounds." This pre-European Ballooning competition involved over 30 balloon teams competing for the event title and the Lithuanian and Latvian championships.

"The pre-European is very important in ballooning and receives a lot of attention," said Feliksas Bakanauskas, a member of the organizing committee. "It is important to know the place. If you want a good result the next year you must know the territory, the roads, proper fields to land and proper targets to choose," he said.

"When balloons come together, trying to reach a goal it is a very spectacular site," said van Helden.

Natural highs

"Ballooning provides a pretty picture, but it is hard to get on television," said Rutger Coucke, the deputy director of the event. "Especially since a spectator has to understand a lot of rules that have grown more complicated over time."

During the course of a balloon competition, the director sets a selection of 19 possible tasks before each race. Approximately an hour before launching, the pilots and crew members file into the briefing room with maps, markers and measuring instruments. After receiving the crucial weather report, the director announces different tasks and starting coordinates.

Based on precision flying, scoring involves a 1-meter-long streamer with a small sand bag attached to the end. One task, called a "Fly In," is when competitors have to find their own launch site and attempt to drop a marker close to a set goal, according to the World Ballooning Championship Web site.

Other tasks range from an "Elbow," where competitors attempt to achieve the greatest change of direction in flight, to "Maximum Distance Time," when they have to drop a marker far away from the launch point within a maximum set time.

A "Pilot Declared Task" is when the pilots pick targets before flying and then drop the markers onto that target, usually the intersection of a road. For this job, just like for all the others, it is important to judge where markers were dropped. That is why each pilot is assigned an observer for the flight. Observers are the "eyes" for the competition and report on where the balloon launches and lands as well as rule violations.

Observers tend to be flying fanatics who enjoy the sport without investing money in balloon equipment or the time to obtain a pilot's license. Laimas Fergizas said he was inspired to join the sport five years ago after seeing a balloon float overhead.

"There is tough training, but it is a sport that is open for everyone who is enthusiastic. It's easy going athleticwise."

"You meet a lot of people from different countries and cultures at events around the world," said Sylvia Meinl from Stuttgart, Germany, an observer who travels to three to four competitions a year. "It is a way to see a new place from a different perspective -not like tourists walking on the ground."

According to Meinl, whose day job is at Mercedes Benz, even the first flights at 4 a.m. are enjoyable.

"During early flights nature is waking up, the birds are starting to sing," she said.

No matter the task, the weather is one of the most important factors. The pilots must know where the wind currents are going to steer the balloon. This is because a pilot can only heat the balloon air in order to rise, and open the top of the balloon if they wish to fall.

"The balloon flies in the direction of where the wind blows - at different heights it goes different directions," said Bakanauskas.

Some balloons are hooked up with pricey Global Positioning System devices to track their location, but Coucke said wind direction could be gouged with everyday household items.

"A pilot sometimes drops some shaving cream foam from the basket to check the wind's ground speed. Or a crew on the ground may have a helium balloon tied to a fishing pole to see the wind's direction. It's all legal."

The Vilnius pre-European event also attracted some celebrity ballooners such as Austrian Josef Starkbaum, a veteran pilot who holds three world records for altitude and is an expert at flying in the mountains. But even the legendary Starkbaum is susceptible to another hazard of the competition, namely, small children.

During a pilot defined task, if the crew on the ground doesn't arrive where the marker lands quickly enough, curious children sometimes steal the marker. The contestant then loses points if it is not recovered or if the observer cannot judge its landing place properly.

Rising power

Before buying a burner, jumping in a basket and launching off, a potential pilot needs a balloon and money - an average balloon costs 30,000 euros. Plus, one flight burns through 40-50 euros' worth of propane gas in addition to the ground crew's travel expenses. Despite the high cost of the sport, Lithuania has managed to become a ballooning force to reckon with. Lithuanian pilot Gintaras Surkus came in third in the 1999 World Championship.

"Ten years ago I stopped being a doctor and started ballooning, turning my life around 180 degrees," he said. "This competition is the biggest in Lithuania so far. More sponsors come as the economy improves."

Surkus said that local teams had bought four balloons recently, giving Lithuania one of the better "balloons per capita" ratios in the world.

He also announced that he would not pilot in the world competition that takes place in Chatallerault, France, at the end August but would be a crew member for his protégé, Valerij Machnorylov. Surkus spoke proudly of his student who can "fly anything" including 737 jets, and he believes Machnorylov's chances for success at the world competition are good. Machnorylov was crow-ned Lithuanian champion at the recent Vilnius event and placed second in the overall pre-European event. Machnorylov said good weather and hard work preparing for the event contributed to his success. He also has a very special crew that includes his wife and daughter.

For himself, Surkus, said piloting balloons would no longer be his "love" but a "hobby." Instead, he will pursue a flight path similar to another pilot and former Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas: politics.

Residents who missed this year's event should not fret because an even bigger competition lands in Vilnius next summer. In 2003, the capital will host the first European Championship held in Eastern Europe -a spectacle that will attract about 70 pilots, crews and, with luck and promotion, throngs of tourists.

"I hope the 2003 European Hot Air Balloon Championship will be one of the most amazing events of the city that will not only create an impressive atmosphere, but will present Lithuania's capital worldwide," said Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas.