The powerful fan blows a gale of air and the bright nylon begins to billow. Minutes later, propane burners roar out a furnace-blast of heat—enough to warm an entire house in half a minute—and the flaccid, earthbound shape fills out, slowly sheds the shackles of gravity, and pulls itself upright, pointing skyward with increasing eagerness. Soon after, the teardrop of colored nylon, harnessed to a wicker basket, soars silently upward, propelled by a silent principle of physics and carried on the whims of the winds.
Hot-air ballooning, now an international sport, has found a dramatic site for meets in the Middle East: Jordan's ruggedly beautiful Wadi Rum. Floating dots of color set against rugged red hills and an azure sky, some 50 "Montgolfieres," as they were originally called, from 15 nations recently filled the horizon over that breathtaking landscape.
Ballooning has been around for 209 years, and now commands growing popularity both as a sport and as a marketing tool in Europe and the United States. It is not a sport for shallow pockets, however: A good-sized craft with elaborate markings will cost upward of $75,000. Thus many balloons carry advertising for sponsors ranging from car makers to—appropriately—propane gas bottlers; others are owned by corporations and flown by the companies' enthusiastic executives. Virgin Atlantic Airlines' Richard Branson had three 747-shaped balloons entered in the competition at Wadi Rum, and Malcolm Forbes flew a bright yellow Sphinx in Egypt almost 10 years ago (See Aramco World, July-August 1984).
Other balloons at Wadi Rum had the shapes of castles, rolled-up newspapers and Smurf heads as well as the traditional teardrop: Whimsy—or advertisement—has free rein in that regard, since odd shapes are not a disadvantage in balloon racing. Once airborne, the balloons fly with, not through, the wind. Nonetheless, a good balloonist knows how to utilize the varying air temperatures and currents at different altitudes to direct his balloon to the desired target.
The meet in Wadi Rum consisted of three stages, one flown each day. Each stage was a different sort of race, testing differing elements of a balloonist's abilities. Competing were some of the best balloon pilots in the world, who reveled in the rugged beauty of the wadi even while they dealt with the challenges of navigation through its rocky crags and swirling winds. "There is no other place on earth to fly like this," said one.
Kirk T. Albrecht is a free-lance writer based in Amman who specializes in the Arab world.