15 March 2022

He wanted a coffee: Canberra's longest-serving pilot explains the mysterious balloon 'crash'

| James Coleman
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Boats and balloons on Lake Burley Griffin during the Canberra Balloon Festival. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

Balloon Aloft Canberra has rejected reports of a hot-air balloon crash-landing at an Aranda café over the weekend, saying the pilot simply saw an opportunity to pop in for a morning coffee.

The purple and black checked balloon is one of about 25 balloons from the Canberra Balloon Spectacular, launching every morning from the Patrick White Lawns before dawn. It joined customers at the Two Before Ten café in Aranda on Monday morning, seemingly by accident.

Two Before Ten venue manager Elise Fairchild says she had just walked outside when the balloon touched down.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, these guys really want a cup of coffee!'”

“It was all a little crazy at the time as people were bursting through the café for their morning brekkie.”

Elise says there was no damage or injuries to report, and the balloon wasn’t on-site for very long.

Balloon Aloft Canberra chief pilot and flight director John Wallington says “it is extremely rare” for a balloon to crash as “pilots have extremely precise height controls”.

“He might land a little bit short or get his judgements slightly wrong, he might brush a fence or something like that, but it’s pretty unusual. This pilot just saw an opportunity and took it.”

Balloons

As the temperature starts to drop in Canberra, balloons become a feature over – and sometimes on – the lake. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

One year, a balloon landed in a car park at McDonald’s for the same reason – a caffeine hit.

“The pilot was perfectly okay, and so was everyone else,” John says. “There was no damage to anything.”

The annual balloon festival lifted off on Saturday, 12 March, to an “incredibly good” start, and John says it’s pulling crowds of 12,000 to 13,000 people each day so far.

“I think this is probably the relief at being able to get out after a couple of years of lockdowns.”

The festival began in 1985 when a couple of Sydney balloonists from Balloon Aloft Australia saw Canberra as the ideal location for a balloon event. Bicentennial celebrations in 1988 cemented its place in the annual events calendar, with over 60 balloons attending. Nowadays, it’s an ACT Government event, run in conjunction with the Enlighten festival around Canberra Day each year.

READ ALSO Meet Tico the Sloth, ‘hanging’ for this year’s Balloon Spectacular

John has been flying balloons since the beginning and describes it as “not that difficult”.

“It requires good spatial awareness and a sound understanding of navigation, geography and meteorology. You need to know which way is north, that’s for sure.”

As for the balloon itself, John says getting used to the “significant lag” between input from the pilot and a response from the balloon takes the most time, “but it’s something people pick up fairly quickly”.

Organisers say this balloon season is already off to a … flying start. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Balloons rely on the different winds at different heights for steering, which is the main reason they take off early in the morning as the air is more predictable, and the winds are not mixed up with the daily heating and cooling cycle.

“You can change heights to use the winds to fly you in a general direction, and that’s where the skill comes in.”

John’s interest in flying developed at an early age with a strong family background in gliding and meteorology. After picking up his skills in Canberra, he flew a balloon non-stop across Australia with Dick Smith in the basket in 1993, followed by another non-stop trans-Tasman voyage from New Zealand to Australia in 2000.

In 1995, John set the record for the world’s highest balloon flight, at 38,000 feet (11.5 km).

READ ALSO CBR hot air balloon has a close shave with Yarralumla’s trees

But despite those stand-out moments and other “wonderful flights” above the snowfields in northern Japan, he still says Canberra is hard to beat when it comes to everyday flying.

“It’s a combination of open spaces and parks in a city, with the Brindabella mountains in the background and the lakes underneath. It’s a very pretty city, and from the air, it’s particularly pretty.

“It’s a city that is perfect for ballooning over,” John says.

He says the worst part of the job is having to get up so early in the morning, but it all gets better the moment the sunrise catches the satisfied look on the face of his passengers.

“It’s such a lovely soft, gentle experience, floating with the wind, you go with it, just looking down with four big open windows all around.”

The Canberra Balloon Spectacular will launch each morning from Patrick White Lawns until 20 March, with balloon inflation from 6.15 am and launch around 7 am, weather permitting. Balloon Aloft Canberra operates all year round.

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I’d take balloon delivery over drone delivery any day. I wonder if they’ll be taking orders.

Tom Worthington4:07 pm 15 Mar 22

Few years ago I pulled into the Marulan Truckstop and noticed a helicopter on the grass. A few minutes later, the pilot came out, and few away. I guess it was the lunch break.

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