A trip to heaven and back
It’s the gentlest of goodbyes. One moment you’re looking over a misty paddock — the next, the fence posts are receding and you’re drawn up into the dawn.
The burner lets rip more flaming gas, then the roar ceases. With a creak and a sigh, the world is left behind. Higher yet, the horizon flares, and the balloon above blooms into colour as you rise into the sun …
The Sunrise Balloons pickup van trundled around Queenstown before the dawn, collecting us and our sleepy fellow passengers. In a field north of Frankton, it eased to a halt and the door slid back, revealing to us a huge basket spilling multicoloured nylon across the grass.
This was the big Lindstrand 260A, and soon, after a safety briefing, it was our job to help inflate it. Two of us held up the skirt as fans pumped cold air in, but soon we were the warmest people in a chilly pre-dawn paddock as the propane burner gushed heated gas into the envelope to finish the job.
Across the field another Lindstrand balloon, a 240A, and a Kavanagh E-160 beyond it, billowed as their crews and passengers did the same. Pre-flight checks and chitchat soon done, we poised to cast off.
One by one the balloons took flight, waltzing around each other for the next hour as we drifted eastward over Lake Hayes and past a drowsing Arrowtown. Soaring higher than nearby Coronet Peak, we peered out over to Mount Aspiring, Mount Earnslaw and the glorious Southern Alps, and down to the tiny dwellings on the green patchwork below.
Then it was time to pass round the toffees and descend from the dizzy heights. Ears popping, we glided over the Kawarau River, easing over shelter belts (and grazing rabbits) to touch earth in the Gibbston Valley. ‘Rock’ pulled the line to release the hot air and deflate the envelope, and we were earthbound again.
The Sunrise truck and trailer soon found our radioed location, and once we’d furled the balloon and loaded it into the trailer it was time to celebrate and check out the photos. A champagne breakfast in a meadow, after a trip to heaven and back. For us the adventure is over, but for the McLellan family and their crews it’s just another day in a life of adventure.
Hugh McLellan says he and his wife (and CEO) Maureen started the ballooning business in 1998 as a way to spend more time in Queenstown. He’d started off crayfishing on the West Coast in 1970, taking up gold mining there until they sold the Greymouth business in 1986 and moved to Queenstown to do the same. After moving his equipment to the Yukon Territory in 1992, he shipped a 45t floating screen and 30t digger to Dawson.
Hugh learned to fly in Canterbury until he earned his CPL (B) and started Sunrise Balloons. He has logged more than 1500hr in hot air balloons and over 2000hr in fixed wing aircraft, and the whole family is involved in a thriving balloon business. Hugh is the chief pilot, while Maureen oversees the whole operation as well as fielding the after-hours and early-morning passenger check-in calls.
Son Carrick (or ‘Rock’ to the punters) also flies and daughter Kirsty manages operations and bookings while son Graham is the company’s IT expert. About nine, including casuals, are employed by the business, including Ben Kent, formerly of Wales, who has been flying balloons for the business since 2012. All pilots are CAA certified and flight tested annually.
A highlight for Hugh has been flying a descendant of the Montgolfier brothers, but he says it is also always neat when couples get engaged on the balloon — an event enjoyed by the other passengers!
The company started off with a leased balloon and then bought a Kavanagh 160. Two years later they bought a Lindstrand 260 and in 2007 acquired a Lindstrand 240. Hugh says the balloons fly much the same, although the larger ones have a little more inertia.
The balloons receive an annual check involving a complete inspection by a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer and a strength test of the fabric. Their annual review of airworthiness is the same as any other aircraft, and now that Sunrise Balloons is Part 115 certified, Hugh says they have plenty of compliance paperwork!
Aside from the obvious attraction of the scenery, the valley east of Frankton is well suited for ballooning. While there are many different air currents, it is well sheltered from other winds. Other aircraft and the nearby busy airport are no problem, although on occasion the balloons may need to descend below a certain altitude if in a missed approach area. Hugh says the Mode “S” transponders recently installed in the balloons were well received by the tower and airline traffic.
However, the feverish development in the Frankton and Gibbston valleys appears to have had an effect. Hugh notes that the fields seem to be getting smaller — no small thing when a given day’s landing field also needs to have room for the envelope to land.
Sunrise Balloons fly every day, at dawn when the air is still. If weather conditions are unsuitable the flight is cancelled, and passengers are advised at their pre-flight call to Sunrise. If all is good to go, they are collected from their accommodation (as early as 5am in summer, through to 8.30am in winter) and transported to the launch site 15min from Queenstown, where they assist the crew to inflate the balloon.
The whole trip, from pickup to return to accommodation, takes some 3½–4hr. The flight itself lasts around one hour, taking in views of Coronet Peak and The Remarkables ski areas, Mount Aspiring and Mount Earnslaw in the Southern Alps, and Mount Tutoko in Fiordland National Park, as well as Lakes Wakatipu and Hayes, and the Shotover and Kawarau rivers. Lord of the Rings fans may also recognise some Middle Earth landmarks such as the Ford of Bruinen, the Dimrill Dale, the Gates of Argonath and the mountains of Isengard.
On landing, and after the balloon has been furled, passengers are provided with a champagne breakfast in the field, consisting of champagne, tea, coffee, juice, pastries and fresh fruit, and receive a certificate in memory of their flight.
Previous ballooning experience is not necessary, but warm clothes, sunglasses and sturdy waterproof footwear are recommended. Cameras are a must, but keep your straps on and bring, or clear, lots of memory! For those without cameras or the inclination, in-flight photos and videos are taken throughout the flight by a tethered G-Pro camera and are available on a USB key afterwards.
- Report by Tim Owens, photographs by Judy Wan Min Kee
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