So, I set aside my fear of heights and randomly called one of the three licensed ballooning companies in Stockholm.
When I rang Upp & Ner, an Åse Edsborg answered the phone. It turned out that she, a 23-year-old, happened to be the only female commercial pilot and the youngest one in Sweden at that. She was licensed by the Swedish Aviation Board in 2006 and had since then piloted more than 150 flights.
“The first time I flew by myself I was so happy,” she said. “To give this experience to other people is great. For many of the passengers this has been a life-long dream and I get the chance to give it to them.”
I am definitely going with her, I thought.
About 110 excited people, some a little nervous like me, met at the headquarter in Saltsjö-Duvnäs, scheduled to go up in six balloons
“We are going up today to celebrate our one-year anniversary,” said Manuel Briand, who lives in Danderyd and had brought his girlfriend, Márcia Rodeiro. “It is great weather so I think it will be great.”
The pilots, who had already consulted meteorologists and studied forecasts earlier in the day, did the mandatory wind test by sending up a little black balloon and decided we would go up from Djursholm. Cool, calm and collected, Edsborg instructed us in how to rig the balloon, how to behave while flying and landing.
There’s a lot of work involved in getting up into the air. We dragged the 180-kilo basket and the 270-kilo balloon out of the trailer in a joint effort. It took about 20 minutes to fill the 250,000 cubic-feet balloon with air, and then we were ready.
We took off after having a little hard time getting off the ground. My fear of heights was quickly forgotten as I tried to decide whether to record sound, or take pictures. Soon, we reached 600 meters. The view was stunning. Stockholm is built on islands and our view consisted of 30 percent vacant land, 30 percent water and 30 percent buildings. We could see the sharp tower of the parliament building, the flat structure of the royal castle and hundreds of boats cruising around the city.
“You live here, you walk around, you bicycle, go by car and never see anything like this,” said Johan Brandhammar, who had brought his 14-year-old daughter, Isabelle. “It’s very beautiful. You get a grip on it.”
We floated over the soccer stadium, Råsunda, past Kungsholmen, over Gröndal. Edsborg kept an eye on her GPS and communicated with the other pilots about direction and conditions, all the while she was pulling the handle that boosts the propane up into the balloon.
The pilots start looking for a landing spot after about 45 minutes and the flights average around an hour or an hour and a half.
“I have two lines, which I use to let out hot air, I can rotate it but a balloon cannot be steered,” said Chris Walker, Edsborg’s assistant.
A hot air balloon cannot be steered? For some reason I had missed this pivotal piece of information in my research.
In 1783 the first hot air balloon floated in the air for about 15 minutes, carrying a goat, a rooster and a sheep. A few months later, the first flight carrying two men, set off from central Paris and within a few years two ballooners had crossed the English Channel. After that, it was a race for who could fly the highest and longest and people used a variety of balloons to beat one record after another. It took nearly 200 years before more modern adventurers would cross vast oceans like the Atlantic [in 1987] and the Pacific [in 1991]. On both voyages business mogul Richard Branson was accompanied by the Swedish pilot, engineer and adventurer Per Lindstrand.
Lindstrand, a legend in his field, is nowadays manufacturing some of the biggest hot-air balloons in the world, and Upp & Ner has a few of them, Edsborg told me.
We kept passing field after field, either too far from it, or bypassed by another balloon that snagged it. I was proud of myself for biting my tongue, not allowing the back-seat-driver in me to take over and start pointing out possible landing sites. Instead I enjoyed watching the outskirts of Stockholm waving to people on their balconies. I noticed that Edsborg and Walker were talking about odd winds.
By now, we were floating low, so low that we could hear the neighborhood kids hollering and screaming, “Are you landing?” Soon we had a posse of 40 kids chasing our balloon like they’d seen a UFO.
These kids proved to be valuable assets, as they pulled us out of a tree by the drop rope Walker had tossed down to them.
The children and some curious on-looking adults helped us pack up the balloon. Once the balloon was packed, Edsborg gathered us and told us the history of hot-air ballooning. She also told us that we would get knighted, and baptized in champagne.
Then we, all counts and countesses by this point, toasted and enjoyed a picnic.
In hindsight, it was a perfect landing that placed my balloon ride right where it belonged definitely in the category of “adventurous,” I thought as I fell asleep that night with champagne in my hair.
Over and out from Majsan Boström, hot-air balloon countess of Vårberg.
Ballooning by the Numbers:
Crew: 2, pilot and crew member
Basket: 180 kilos
Balloon canvas: 270 kilos
Total est. weight with passengers: 1.5 tons
Air volume: 250,000 cubic feet
Air time: 1 to 1,5 hours
Cruising height: ground-level to 700 meters
Capacity height: 4,000 meters (non-commercial)