Serenity in the sky
- Monday, June 3, 2013, 0:00
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Legend has it that when the first manned hot air balloons took flight over the French countryside in 1783, the villagers and farmers thought these great fire-powered globes could only be the work of demons and so would destroy them once they had landed on their fields. The Montgolfier brothers, who designed and built the first manned balloons, decided to appease the angry and fearful public by bringing along good spirits to combat the bad, and that tradition continues today in Guatemala, with a champagne toast upon each landing.
The hot air balloon was the very first aircraft that allowed mankind to experience what it is like to rise into the air and float across the sky with everything in miniature below. While the view might be the same from a small plane or helicopter, the experience is much different. “There is a moment when you are up there and the burners aren’t making any noise. You just don’t hear anything, and you can contemplate all the scenery and nature. It’s a very introspective experience and very peaceful,” explains Emilio Eva Arévalo of Aerostatika.
Emilio and his partner, Luis Fuentes, decided they wanted to bring the experience of flying in a hot air balloon to Guatemala, so they founded the hot air balloon tour company, Aerostatika. Although they brought their first balloon to Guatemala in 2010, it took some time before they were able to cut the ropes and take passengers on a flight because there just weren’t any regulations for hot air ballooning in Guatemala for the simple reason that there hadn’t been any hot air balloons here before. The Dirección General de Aeronáutica Civil (DGAC), the civil aviation authority of Guatemala, first had to establish regulations, based on international and FAA standards, so that hot air balloons could safely share Guatemalan airspace with other types of aircraft.
Now that the safety regulations have been established and Aerostatika has qualified for flight based on DGAC’s new policy, their pilot – who, besides being a US Marines-trained airplane pilot, is a fully qualified hot air balloon pilot with 35 years of ballooning experience – can now take passengers up to explore the skies of Guatemala for a truly breathtaking experience.
Hot air balloons take flight by applying a simple rule of thermodynamics: hot air rises; and by capturing enough hot air, the balloon, its basket, and passengers will also rise. Once the balloon is off the ground, it is not just at the mercy of the breeze. An experienced pilot can control the altitude of the balloon with the intensity of the flame and knowledge of thermal inversion layers. The direction of the flight can also be controlled to some degree because of the effect that inversion layers have on wind shear and direction; in other words, the wind blows in different directions at different altitudes. Still every flight will be different depending on the winds, and whether a hot air balloon can take flight at all on a given day depends entirely on the weather. For this reason, ballooning seasons are based on seasonal and regional weather conditions, and it is not uncommon that flights sometimes have to be rescheduled, but the experience is well worth the wait.
When asked about the safety of flying in a hot air balloon, Emilio smiles, “It’s the only form of flight where you don’t have to wear a seatbelt because it is that tranquil.” And if you’re still not sure, he continues, “The whole balloon is made of parachute material. It’s a giant parachute. In fact, it was a hot air balloonist who invented the parachute.” Aerostatika is also fully insured and only sends their balloons up if the conditions are conducive to a safe flight and an enjoyable experience for their passengers.
Aerostatika just finished a successful ballooning season during the changing of the B’ak’tun, flying over the jungles and lakes of Petén, where passengers got to see howler monkeys climb to the tree tops to investigate this previously unseen object in flight above their territory. And a few lucky passengers even got a glimpse of rarely seen wildlife like jaguar and ocelot. Now with the changing of the winds, the company has brought their balloons to the La Antigua area and are currently lifting off from La Reunión, a golf resort in San Juan Alotenango, to drift among the volcanoes for spectacular views and a truly unique experience.
When asked how their passengers have responded to flying in a hot air balloon, Emilio tells how even people with a fear of heights quickly relax once they feel the serenity of drifting through the sky. The experience, without the sound of an engine, in the fresh air, free of an enclosed cabin, above the towns and trees, and with amazing unhindered views in every direction, is one that is truly awe-inspiring and leaves passengers at a loss for words to describe this unusual adventure.
Emilio does admit though that he once had a passenger that was so extremely nervous that he looked green. Emilio was quite worried about his guest until his pallor was replaced with a happy glow after the young man produced a ring from his pocket and the woman of his affection said yes. It made for a landing well deserving of the traditional champagne toast!
Photos courtesy of Aerostatika