I have friends who are collecting thousands of air miles with all these transatlantic Boeing-something-flights every second month. And there are also Simona and Laurynas Komza – a few adventurers from Balloon Club Lituanica team. I’m not sure how many miles they’ve already collected with all hot air balloon flights they did in different parts of the world, but I think those running to the gates in the airport would be surprised. So, let’s take off for a little adventure with these two.
It is easy for me to understand how people find themselves playing basketball or learning kizomba. But how can ballooning become a hobby?
Laurynas: In 1988, balloon enthusiasts from all over the world came to the first Hot Air Balloon Festival in Vilnius Vingis Park. Foreigners were curious about how post–soviet world looks like, and Lithuanians were able to try ballooning themselves. Later some went to Poland and Russia to learn more about hot air balloons. Others received their first balloons as gifts; some started to handmade it – this was the beginning of an era and hot air ballooning tradition in Lithuania.
Tradition is a driving force in the ballooning community. It also runs in the family. It happened to me too. My father was writing his thesis when balloons came to his life. And it was a disturbing experience at first – a sound awakened him. It was the sound of a hot air balloon. He decided to check the thing himself. He tried it, and he liked it.
Simona: Laurynas dad’s story is just crazy. For starters, he met some American pilots here in Lithuania. The deal was made – they offered him a spare balloon as a present. It’s just that the balloon was in the USA. It wasn’t that easy, neither cheap to go to the States back then. But somehow, he managed to bring his present to Lithuania.
Laurynas: Everybody started from scratch back in the ‘90s; it is much easier now. Ballooning is one of the cheapest ways for those who want to fly. If you are interested in ballooning, you can easily find a school or a club. And some people come to ballooning with no background.
Simona: Also, some are friends with pilots. They become team members, and later on, they decide to try flying themselves.
Would ballooning be possible with no team?
Laurynas: Team is very important. You can’t take off or pack the balloon alone, so you need a team. And you want these people to be kind. When I go to contest, I try to form a group of people who are close and fun to be with. While in competition, you spend a lot of time together, so you want this time to be pleasant. Trust is also critical because there are dozens of tasks that need to be done with precision and not with conflict or bad emotions.
Simona: When you are preparing the balloon for the take-off, everyone is focused on this common goal. People are doing this voluntarily, they dedicate their time for the team, they don’t get paid, so they really must be into ballooning.
Do you feel that you are a part of a bigger international ballooning community?
Laurynas: Form of a balloon is easily recognisable, so if you notice a sticker or a badge, or some branded jacket, even a trailer on the road, it is very easy to identify – they are into ballooning. In Lithuania, there are about 100 pilots and the same number of hot air balloons. We know each other. Balloons demand particular infrastructure, so, it’s way easier to plan your trip with native balloonists, especially when you travel abroad. It would be too expensive not to collaborate. Balloons are all about gathering together—the more the merrier.
But if one of you wasn’t that much into ballooning, would it be easy to stay on the ground while other is somewhere high in the sky?
Simona: I was thinking about this a lot. Balloons are time-consuming, so it’s even common for families to plan their holiday around this hobby to go to competitions with kids. It is an advantage if both partners are doing this. Otherwise, it could get complicated. But once you step into balloons, they are very engaging. It’s not only your partner who does that but also his father or brother and your friends, so everybody’s around.
Laurynas: We meet with friends, and we talk about balloons.
Simona: Yes! Even with those who are not into ballooning. They always want to hear new stories, which I’ve already listened to a hundred times. (laughing)
Did balloons teach you things that became your daily habits?
Laurynas: Ballooning teaches you to accept the unpredictable. It wasn’t hard for me, because it was always like that.
Simona: I learned to work in a team. I’m an individualist, so now I start by changing my view in the first place, and not transforming others.
Laurynas: Also, commercial flights help you to meet and manage many different people. As a pilot, I’m not only responsible for the safety, but also for the pleasant microclimate of our time in the air together.
Laurynas, balloons are your job, but would you call it your life?
Laurynas: I think there are two types of people. The ones who admire their hobby and fill their life with this enthusiasm. They are looking for every possibility to spend more time doing their thing. And some don’t have that admiration or excitement; it’s just natural. Balloons were always in my life, it wasn’t my passion, it was a natural and inseparable part of me.
We often put our work in tables and make lists of planning; I guess, in ballooning, a part of every flight is always unpredictable?
Laurynas: When people took a flight with a hot air balloon for the first time, they got a whole new possibility to see Earth from the outside. Balloon became a symbol of the future and new horizons. But today planes and drones are here to give you that taste of tomorrow. If it’s a drone, you don’t even need to be there; you can get a picture of any place. So, the only option for balloons to stay relevant is to be unpredictable.
If you subscribe to some news online, you choose your preferences, and you know what to expect. But if you read printed newspaper, there is always something new, something you didn’t ‘mute’. Balloons are unpredictable because you choose point A for the take-off, but you have no idea where the point B will be. Wind can bring you to that precious meadow, just as you planned, but you can also be landing in some creek. In every flight you try to minimize the risk, so you have a few possible landing locations, but a little bit of risk is needed for balloons to be relevant. So, it’s always an adventure.
With all due respect to adventure, is there a flight you are happy didn’t happen?
Laurynas: Wind is manageable, especially in Lithuania, because we don’t have huge storms. Situations when you see dark clouds, decide not to fly, go home and then it starts raining, are quite common. Everybody’s on the ground, everybody’s happy. Safety first. For us, pilots, the most extreme situations are usually connected with landing – you don’t want to land in a forest, or a city, or on the water.
Simona: For me, as a team member, there were few flights which I hoped won’t happen. But balloons are quite slow, and you can predict conditions.
And what is your biggest adventure in the air and on earth then?
Simona: I could hardly think about anything that happened on earth. (laughing)
Laurynas: The flight that I will never forget happened in France. While descending, I collided with another balloon going up. My basket leaned over and cracked the envelope of that other balloon. Some things fell out of my basket. So could have I. It’s hard to explain my emotions back at that moment, but I remember not overthinking. I was just trying not to fall out and to survive to hold on to the basket. I remember thinking that I’ve never been on the balloon, so would I slide or fall into it? My mind was not matching my body, holding itself tight. I was fortunate, neither I, nor balloon suffered any damages, but the pilot of other balloon got some injuries, because of fast landing. Luckily, we’re all alive, although I wish there were fewer such accidents.
Simona: For me, that sight was dreadful.
Laurynas: On the brighter note, small unexpected discoveries are always a beautiful part of ballooning. For example, when you land on the beach and go swimming first thing. Or after landing in a village, somebody is offering you a bottle of fresh milk and people invite you for breakfast. It is why it’s always an adventure – you can’t plan the beach or that breakfast offer.
Is there a dream place you would love to fly over?
Laurynas: I always say that it is nice to fly over the places you grew up. I did that. Also, the mountains. The Alps. And the desert. I explored these from the above too. But one place – Antarctica, especially shores meeting the ocean – should be excellent. And a waterfall.
Nature, the things you can see on National Geography are always the most exciting and exciting. But you can only see them on TV. With a balloon, you can feel it.
Imagine your life without balloons, is there any other hobby that could become your life?
Simona: I would love Laurynas to be a climber so that I could go mountain climbing with him.
Laurynas: Photography maybe, but I never gave more serious thoughts about anything else than ballooning.
Simona: I‘m jealous of him sometimes. Balloons came to Laurynas routine so naturally, and it will be there for life.
Laurynas: But I needed some time to realize that too. Firstly, it started with a protest in my teenage days. Later I was studying Political Science, thinking this will be my future, totally independent from my parents, from what I inherited. But finally, I realized that this tradition is not a burden, it helps me. And I like the idea of carrying that tradition and its values. I think it is hard to motivate yourself to do things that you don’t feel close to. And in ballooning, I always see possibilities and new space to explore.
What would be your tips for those who have no idea about this tradition, who are afraid of flying or heights, and just got a hot air balloon flight as a gift?
Simona: It is hard to answer, because I’m terrified of flying by plane, mostly because I don’t control the flight and I can’t talk to the pilots about the situation, while they are in a cabin. But I have no fear of heights, nor of flying in a balloon. In a balloon, you can always share your concerns with the pilot, and his answers could bring you some peace.
Laurynas: People are usually afraid before the flight, not after the balloon takes off. It is the fear of the unknown.