Europe's biggest balloon festival takes flight

13th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Weird and wonderful shapes filled the skies as Europe's biggest hot air balloon festival marked the golden jubilee of modern ballooning.

More than half a million people were expected to attend the four-day Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, held on a country estate in Bristol, southwest England.

Some 150 balloons from around the world joined in at one of Britain's biggest outdoor events, which runs till Sunday.

Balloons from Dubai, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United States were among those joining in the fun.

Bristol-based Don Cameron, the world's biggest balloon manufacturer, is the event's flight director, and at 71 is still in love with their charm.

"It's beautifully old-fashioned, gloriously obselete, a vintage way of flying," he told AFP.

"There is a magic about flying in balloons because you're not rushing, you can drift along quite slowly, lean over the edge of the basket, and sometimes fly so low that you can chat to people on the ground."

This year's festival marks 100 years of Bristol's key aviation industry -- Concorde was built here in the 1960s -- as well as the 50th anniversary of modern ballooning.

In 1960, American Ed Yost first used a nylon balloon and propane gas on board.

Beforehand, balloons dating back to the Montgolfier brothers' pioneering flight in 1783 were heated by a fire on the ground and were limited in how far they could fly.

At the Bristol fiesta, the balloons are inflated first with cold air, before the pilots jump in the baskets. With repeated, fierce blasts of propane gas flames that roar and hiss, the immense, bizarre shapes gradually take form.

A giant motorbike with a helmeted rider, a light bulb, a dog, a monster, a Jaguar car, squares, a huge wine box and a green dragon slowly emerge to fill the skyline.

The motorbike is one of the biggest special shapes ever built, while the dragon is Britain's only glass-bottomed balloon.

"It's a great view for passengers, though they do dwell on the fact that there's seemingly nothing between them and oblivion," its pilot Richard Turnbull told AFP.

After dark, a ring of 30 regular balloons lit up the night sky, their flames blasting in time to music, filling the cavernous nylon with light and colour.

It was a romantic sight for Anthony Grant, 32, and his wife Leanne, who were among the anticipated 100,000 people watching the night glow.

"It's really great, you don't realise until you see it. The colours are awesome," he told AFP.

"We came for the first time three years ago. I proposed, got my timing right and we got married last year."

The fiesta was first held in 1979, when 27 balloons gathered. Now only the annual festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico has more balloons.

Though more than two centuries have passed since France's Montgolfier brothers made the first manned flight, ballooning can still capture the imagination.

Last year's moving 3D Disney-Pixar film "Up", about a man whose house takes off on helium balloons, won five Oscars.

In May, American Jonathan Trappe crossed the English Channel dangling from a bunch of helium balloons.

And last October's hoax, in which it seemed a six-year-old boy had crawled into the basket and flown off across Colorado, earned blanket coverage.

Cameron, the first man to cross the Sahara desert in a hot air balloon, reckons the pastime will still be there in another 50 years.

Balloons are now mostly used for sports, advertising and pleasure rides.

"I doubt we'll see the end of it. We're practicing an art that's already 227 years old," he said.

"Although a lot of modern technology now goes into it, the fundamental principle of being lighter than air won't change.

"Ballooning remains a lot of fun. Hopelessly impractical because you go where the wind goes, but that's part of the charm."

© 2010 AFP

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