Hot-Air Balloonists Plan a Historic Voyage Across the Black Sea

By webadmin on 05:32 pm Sep 16, 2010
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Stefan Korshak

Hitting the bull’s-eye won’t be easy, even though the target is 70 kilometers wide.

Ukrainian Sergei Skalko and Georgian Revaz Uturgaur want to be the first people ever to fly a hot-air balloon across the Black Sea from Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Liftoff is set for January next year. Their goal is to fly some 900 kilometers to Georgia’s Batumi region.

“By many standards, this is not much distance. People have ridden around the world in specialized balloons,” Skalko said.

“But we will be over freezing seas. Prevailing winds for most of the year are against us,” he said. “And if we go off track, we strike either mountains or a conflict zone. This flight is something no one has ever attempted.”

Ballooning is in its infancy in the former Soviet Union, with an estimated 75 rigs operating in Ukraine and a few dozen in Georgia. In contrast, there are around 7,500 rigs operating in the United States.

One reason for the disparity lies in personal income. A fully equipped hot-air balloon costs between $40,000 and $50,000 — the equivalent of five to 10 years’ wages for most people living in countries of the former Soviet Union.

The total cost of the Black Sea crossing is an estimated $350,000. All those participating in the voyage are volunteers.

“You will find that most of the people in ballooning in our country have a professional past in the sky,” said Oleksander Novikov, a pilot who joined a late-August balloon navigation competition in central Ukraine.

“For us, ballooning isn’t as much a mass sport as a hobby for aeronautics professionals.”

Skalo is a former helicopter and fighter pilot. The preparations he describes for what is called the Black Sea Balloon Run are far from amateur.

The envelope — the fabric part of a hot-air balloon that holds the gas — was cut, sealed and sewn in the Czech Republic by Kubicek Balloons, one of Europe’s largest balloon manufacturers.

Completed earlier this month, the inflated gas bag should keep airborne for a planned 30-hour flight.

It will carry some five tons of weight, including the passengers and some 3.5 tons of propane gas, food and equipment. Around 30 people are involved in the crossing, including two pilots and two landing crews.

A major challenge will be to clear the flight path through the airspace of five sovereign countries.

Because of the vagaries of balloon travel, the flight route is necessarily sketchy. Pilots have little directional control beyond changing altitude to catch a wind blowing in the needed direction.

Still, the pilots will have to do their best to navigate a fairly precise path. If they stray too far north, their balloon might pass into the airspace of Abkhazia, a breakaway Georgian province that Moscow and Tbilisi have fought over.

If they travel too far south, the balloon might drift toward Turkey’s snow-capped Pontic Mountains. That would mean a forced landing in rocky wilderness or in the Black Sea, whose cold waters could kill in a matter of minutes.

Because their balloon isn’t sophisticated enough, Skalko and Uturgaur won’t have the option of flying at a high altitude to avoid such obstacles. That technique was used to great effect by Richard Branson in his record-breaking crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Weather will also be a challenge for the crew. Winds above the Black Sea generally blow clockwise around the coastlines. Most of the year, there isn’t a straight-line breeze from the northwest to the southeast.

However, the balloon team’s meteorologists believe they can make the best of the situation by flying in the winter months, when cold Siberian air effectively shuts down prevailing Black Sea wind patterns and replaces them with smaller masses of air circling over Romania and Russia’s Kuban region.

Skalko says they have an 80 percent chance of entering Georgia’s airspace, a 10 percent chance of hitting Abkhazian and a 10 percent chance of flying into the Turkish mountains, based on their analysis of 10 years’ worth of weather data.

“So we are going to try,” he said.