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It's all hot air!

(...or gas). A keen balloonist reports on his unusual hobby.

For hundreds of years, human beings have been fascinated by the idea of flying, but it was only in the eighteenth century that a practical apparatus was designed to achieve this aim.

The French brothers Montgolfier observed that paper bags filled with smoke tended to rise. From these small beginnings, they developed the first hot air balloon, and the first manned balloon flight took place at Versailles in 1783.

Almost at once, ballooning became very fashionable, but it was the gas balloon which became more widely used than the hot air balloon. The gas balloon in turn was superseded by the airship, which gave way to the more reliable aeroplane at the beginning of the twentieth century.

But the hot air balloon never died out completely, and during the 1960's, using new materials and a safer method of generating hot air, it literally took off again.

By the 1980's, marketing executives had realised that balloons made wonderful advertising hoardings and soon the skies were full of brightly coloured and excitingly shaped advertisements for everything from margarine to mobile phones.

Ballooning is an uncertain activity. Take off is entirely determined by the local weather conditions. "Safety first!" is the absolute rule and pilots who ignore it have short flying careers.

Preparing the balloon for flight needs teamwork. The same team will follow the balloon as it flies in order to retrieve it when it lands, and no-one is sure where the balloon will land exactly. The pilot carries out a last-minute check before flying and briefs the passengers. Nothing should be forgotten, as important items left on the ground are difficult to pick up from 300 metres.

The flight itself takes place silently, punctuated by the roar from the gas burner as more hot air is put into the balloon envelope. Soon, even nervous passengers begin to enjoy the sensation of floating gently over the countryside, admiring the interesting patterns of roads and fields below. There is a feeling that problems have been left behind on the ground. There is a sense of freedom.

Landing can sometimes be bumpy, depending on wind speed and terrain, but as long as the passengers hold on tight and stay in the basket, there is little danger of injury and every chance that they will want to repeat the experience.

Word play

Do you know these common idiomatic uses of the word "air"? If you are not sure, click the "Meaning" button.

The politician's speech was full of hot air.

His personal assistant entered the room with an air of apology.

The prime minister spoke on the radio recently, airing his views on the situation of the economy.

The president went on the air to make a public broadcast.

There had been several small disagreements among the staff. Finally, their boss called them together to clear the air.




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