Posted: 24.05.2024 15:45:11

555 minutes in the sky

“Touching clouds is possible!” Belarusians have set off on an aerial adventure in a hot air balloon wicker basket and set a record

The crew came out with a flying gait in early March and disappeared into the veil of mist behind the hot air balloon, for as many as 9 hours 15 minutes. Instructor pilot, lecturer at the Academy of Civil Aviation Dmitry Bondarenkov and pilot Aleksandr Povshko lifted one of Belarus’ largest aircraft over Minsk Region and became the first national record holders for the flight duration on a hot air balloon. What you need to be prepared for in order to spend so much time in a small basket, how long it took the guys to make a plan and implement a grandiose idea, and what difficulties they encountered in the air — below are the captivating details of the offbeat flight.

National record holders for the flight duration on a hot air balloon, Belarusian State Aviation Academy   Aleksandr Gorbash 

A fixed idea

Senitsa [agrotown in Minsk District], early morning. Imagine a sharp noise, a flame from a burner and only two degrees Celsius on a thermometer. Nevertheless, March 9th became the perfect day for the first record, according to Aleksandr Povshko, “We had been going to this for about four months, thinking over the route and waiting for the right weather. Winter would be ideal for us in terms of using the least amount of gas. So the weather conditions were not the most suitable — the average wind speed that day was about 15 kilometres per hour, which is three times more than what we needed. We did not back down, though!” 
The record holders started at a speed of about 18-20 kilometres per hour, which is even faster than they had originally planned. When they reached a height of 450 metres, the wind was finally on their side — Aleksandr and Dmitry caught the necessary 3 kilometres per hour. While the experienced pilots were deftly coping with the controls and examining the surroundings of Minsk Region, cars passing below were stopping to capture the beauty in the sky. A team on the ground was closely watching the passengers of the wicker basket. The guys were in touch with Aleksandr and Dmitry for all 555 minutes by accompanying them throughout the entire route and transmitting the coordinates over the radio. They were also ready to assist in the event of an emergency landing. “No pilot is an island, as they say,” pilot Yekaterina Ivashina smiled. 
“Each flight is always a team effort. This is especially true when setting a record, which largely depends on the concerted action of each team member. The balloon flies in a straight line, while roads follow their own trajectories. That is why in parallel with Aleksandr and Dmitry, we also calculated the route.” 

10 mugs of tea and 700 litres of gas

The balloon envelope that the whole team deployed at the start was actually commensurate with more than 80 trucks expressed in cubic metres. The pilots took the most necessary things with them to the basket designed for 12 people — first of all, 16 gas cylinders for 40 and 55 litres. “Not much gas is needed to launch the balloon, 20 litres is enough,” said Dmitry. “As soon as we started, the consumption was obviously higher since the basket was filled to the maximum. When the gas was used up in the process, the mass decreased. According to our calculations, one gas cylinder was expected to last for 30 minutes but in fact it lasted even longer.” 
Aleksandr shared his impressions when answering the question if they had got frozen in nine hours, “This is what the guys on the ground asked us about every hour. Of course, we had been worried about that. But to be honest, I only recalled that we were in the open air after four hours of flight. I told Dima, ‘In principle, we could already take out thermo mugs with sandwiches...’ Only then did we get ourselves tea and coffee. We also took thermoses with boiling water.” 
In order not to freeze at bird’s-eye height, the pilots got dressed as for winter before departure — thermal underwear, ski trousers, jackets, hats, gloves. However, due to adrenaline, the guys almost did not notice cool weather and besides, time flew by quickly. “We did not sit still. The balloon has no electronics or autopilot, unlike airplanes. So we controlled the balloon in turn, heated the air in the envelope to maintain the balloon at a certain height, checked the coordinates, monitored the number of gas cylinders, analysed the landing point,” Dmitry clarified. 
What about a keepsake photo? Tablets and phones were mostly used to open special applications needed for the flight, explained Aleksandr. But sure, they did not remain without photos and videos!

Focus on altitude

A huge hot air balloon easily lifts off the ground and soars into the sky — romance! This is the opinion of everyone who has not yet experienced the heavenly euphoria of flying in a balloon. For experienced pilots, in contrast, this has become a common thing. According to Aleksandr, waiting out ‘non-flying times’ is a challenge of its own. Twelve years ago, he could not even imagine that aeronautics would captivate him so much. The pilot admitted that he was not one of those who dreamed of the sky since childhood, and got a profession of power engineer. “My story with the heavenly sphere started by chance. My friends once offered me to participate in launching a hot air balloon, that is to lay the envelope out on the ground, inflate it, and put it up. You know, I really liked all the inner workings. So I completed theory and practice at the Belarusian State Aviation Academy, and flew my first 16 hours. There were a lot of emotions! I realised them only the next day, though. Then I understood that it is possible to touch clouds.” 
Over the years of their aerial experience, Aleksandr and Dmitry have made ascents not only over Belarus. Dmitry has been studying nature and cities from up high for more than 20 years, he flew about 1,300 hours and even conquered the Alps. Aleksandr has about 600 hours of flying time under his belt and the highest ascent of 2,400 metres. The pilots’ careers do not stop there as the crew strives to soar to new heights.    
“The day when the Guinness Book of Records record holder, chief expert of the national register of Belarus’ Book of Records Kirill Shimko awarded us with a certificate on record registration in Belarus’ Book of Records after the flight left the most unforgettable impression,” Aleksandr noted. “I am glad we caught our wind! Everything turned out even better than we had planned. Now we are confidently going after new records. We are now thinking about taking the highest altitude in a hot air balloon. This requires a lot of preparation and medical examinations ahead, but it is worth it.”

By Irina Lukashik