An early morning flight

3:30am alarm.

3:40am shower.

4:00am Left the house for a 4:30am rendezvous.

By 4:45 we were in a minibus headed for our embarkation point.

Time for a Sunday morning balloon flight – a Christmas present from last year from M.

Hot air balloons are very much at the mercy of the weather.

Our flight had been cancelled twice already due to the wintry blast of wind and rain that had been forecast.

That’s fine by me. I’m a little nervous with heights. Did I want to be high in the air in a balloon in turbulent weather? No, I did not.

For the first flight date, I’d optimistically booked a room in the hotel that serves as the meeting place.

Once the flight was cancelled, it morphed into a night away from home – dinner in the CBD, a stroll to the hotel through gardens, a sleep-in, enjoying the views, breakfast out and a walk in the Fitzroy Gardens in the drizzle.

Balloon taking off from Newport

Third time lucky, with the light wind of Sunday morning determining that we’d head to a park in Newport to take off, flying over the City from west to east – along with three other balloons.

It was a group of nine people, and indeed setting up and packing down is a group operation.

Two of us helped take the basket and the balloon off the trailer, and then once the two were attached, we held the end of the balloon as a big fan inflated it. This participation helped wash away any nervousness and replace it with enthusiasm.

Pretty quickly the balloon took shape, and the wind started to blow the basket around, with our pilot directing people to get in to help weigh it down until we were ready to go.

Some blasts from the flame and we were suddenly drifting upwards, quietly and smoothly.

Balloon over Melbourne
Balloons flying over Port Melbourne towards central Melbourne

We headed over Port Melbourne, with amazing views of the bay, a cruise ship, and the Westgate and Bolte Bridges.

Steve, our pilot, delivered a small box to one lady, visiting from Colombia, who opened it to find it was an engagement ring from her companion.

She said yes. A round of applause, and we continued our sightseeing.

Here’s some video:

Being early Sunday morning, there were few cars around, so it was very peaceful – except when the flame was burning.

(In contrast, the helicopter ride some years ago was incredibly noisy due to the rotors.)

The flame, when used, was noisy and being just above our heads, was pretty warm too.

Steve explained some of the detail of how it all works. Broadly, you follow the wind, but you do have control of climbing and descent, and a little control to turn the balloon.

We drifted higher over the city centre, which was spectacular from above.

View over Melbourne from a hot air balloon 17/11/2019 6:04am
Balloons flying over central Melbourne

Then over the Treasury and Flagstaff Gardens and the hotel where we’d met, reducing altitude over Collingwood.

It was still early – few people were out and about, but one bloke sweeping leaves in the street did look up. We exchanged waves.

After passing Collingwood Town Hall we continued over Yarra Bend Park. Groups of people were down below, dancing to loud music… by this point it was something like 6am, and a party was still going in the park. We drifted down low over them and they saw us and started waving and cheering.

A little further on in the park and the pilot was radioing the ground crew to let them know we’d be landing soon.

He prompted us to brace for landing… no doubt sometimes it can be a bit rough, but this was actually pretty smooth.

It was a spot near the freeway – which compared to the quiet of the park, was surprisingly noisy even from light traffic.

Deflating the balloon

The ground crew arrived, and we helped pack up the balloon – it’s a bit like folding up a sleeping bag back into storage, but involves more people.

Once the balloon and the basket were back in the trailer, we hopped into the bus to head back to the hotel for breakfast, regaled by tails of earlier flights. Steve recommended we Google for Glen Iris balloon landing.

“That was me!” he said. “And it was this balloon!”

“Glad you didn’t tell us before the flight” I replied.

But our flight was flawless.

I’m slightly nervous about heights, but the gentle take-off and landing were fine – and I can see why they cancel the flight if it’s too windy.

Flights are generally around dawn, so winter would involve less of an early start – but it’d be colder and wetter (from dew) while setting up before dawn. It was an early start, but weather was perfect.

It took a bit under an hour to fly/drift from Newport to Yarra Bend. It would probably take longer by car in peak hour.

(Obligatory public transport advocacy: the Metro 2 rail tunnel would do a similar trip in perhaps 15-20 minutes.)

But you can see why ballooning is a tourist activity, not a mainstream form of transport. The embarkation and disembarkation points are severely limited. You’ve got no guarantee of going where you need to go to.

And any form of transport that requires you to be trailed by a ground crew is never going to be mainstream.

Ballooning was first attempted in the 1780s – and it’s doubtful that it has ever been a terribly useful way to get around. But it’s still a lot of fun.

Postscript: Over breakfast, I overheard a NZ couple chatting with our pilot, about Melbourne’s public transport. Wherever in NZ they’re from, it’s better than there.

“Yeah it’s pretty good”, replied our pilot. “But I don’t understand why the trains don’t run more frequently in the suburbs. Sometimes you have to wait half an hour.”

Amen to that, Steve.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

2 replies on “An early morning flight”

I’ve done a flight with the same company in 2004 or so (as far as I can tell from your images) – we took off from the old practice nets near swan st and punt rd (which now seem to be outdoor clay tennis courts), overflew the MCG, then across the north-east of the city, overflew the zoo and then eventually landed on the fields of essendon airport …

Great review. Great shots. I could never convince the wife to do a balloon ride. Too many things could go wrong.

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