On 21 January 1889, Dunedin citizens watched open-mouthed as an American ‘aerialist’ calling himself ‘Professor Baldwin’ drifted overhead in a yellow oiled-silk balloon inflated by coal gas. This flight, the first of its kind in New Zealand, foreshadowed displays by other touring American balloonists, including Miss Millie Viola, ‘Professor Jackson’, Miss Leila Adair, and ‘Professor Barnes’. Their performances began with the hazardous process of filling the balloon with hot air, often featured acrobatic stunts performed on a trapeze suspended under the balloon, and ended with a death-defying parachute descent.
The Aerial Queen
American balloonist Leila Adair, billed as ‘The Aerial Queen’, toured New Zealand in 1894. Her ascents were noted for mishaps. At Auckland her balloon was blown out over the Rangitoto Channel, while in Hamilton it burst during a spectacular descent. A children’s nursery rhyme lingered for years after her visit:
Leila Adair went up in the air,
Her balloon came down and left her there.
Early New Zealand balloonists
Some intrepid New Zealanders were keen to emulate these feats. The first New Zealand-born balloonist, David Mahoney (‘Captain Charles Lorraine’), drowned on 2 November 1899 when he was caught out by a south-west change and his balloon ditched in the sea outside Lyttelton Harbour. Other early New Zealand balloonists included Bob Murie and Noah Ezra Jonassen, ‘The Aerial King’.
The modern hot-air balloon
The advent of powered flight soon overshadowed ballooning, but from the 1960s nylon fabrics and butane burners helped revive the sport in New Zealand. During the 1970s balloons were flown across Cook Strait and over Aoraki/Mt Cook and the Southern Alps for the first time.
Ballooning is still a vivid spectacle, but much safer. The brightly coloured hot-air balloons can be four to nine storeys high, and often take fantastic shapes such as giant animals and birds, buildings or cartoon characters. They are fuelled by liquid propane or LPG carried in canisters: when the valves are opened, the gas is ignited by a burner under the envelope of the balloon. The hot air inside the envelope is lighter than the cold air outside it, causing the balloon to rise.
Flying a balloon
To inflate a balloon, the envelope is stretched along the ground and attached to the basket, which is lying on its side. A petrol-powered fan blows air into the envelope and a burner is turned on, heating the air and causing the balloon to stand upright.
Balloons can remain in the air for about two hours, depending on how much fuel they carry. Although they cannot be steered, the pilot can control the gas flow to descend or ascend and take advantage of wind currents. Once in flight, a balloon travels at the speed of the wind around it, so it is best to fly in light winds. Ground crew drive below the balloon to help it land and return it to its base.
The sport of ballooning
The sport of ballooning in New Zealand is governed by Civil Aviation Authority regulations, and local clubs are co-ordinated by the Balloon Aviation Association of New Zealand, established in 1990. In the early 2000s no licence was required to pilot a balloon, but there were plans to introduce one.
The annual Balloons over Waikato festival started in 1988, the Wairarapa International Balloon Fiesta has been a regular event since 1999, and in 2005 Levin hosted a fiesta. Hawke’s Bay, Canterbury and Queenstown are also popular ballooning regions. Increasing numbers of tourists are taking to the air in balloons operated by adventure tourism companies.
On 7 January 2012, a hot-air balloon on a scenic flight from Carterton struck a high-voltage power line while the pilot was attempting to land. All 11 people on board died in the resulting fire and crash.