From the classroom to the clouds

From the classroom to the clouds

We like our students to reach new heights, but is this too far? In his spare time, undergraduate Jacob Brown takes to the skies in his hot air balloon.

From the classroom to the clouds

Video: Matthew McMahon

A visit to the Canberra Balloon Spectacular changed the direction of Jacob Brown’s life. In 2013 he turned up as a spectator and left as a crew member.

“Going to the festival and watching the balloons float away over the lake…it just captured me from the first time I saw them,” recalls Jacob.

The nine-day festival draws more than thirty balloons to Canberra every year, where the capital city offers unique attractions for ballooning.

“As far as I'm aware, it's the only capital city in the world that allows regular balloon flights.

“To be able to fly in a location where there is the lake, a metropolitan area, a tourist area and the mountains around it is incredible. There is nowhere else like it.”

Today, however, we meet Jacob somewhere different. The second widest canyon in the world.

“We’re in the Capertee Valley in the NSW Blue Mountains,” says Jacob. “It's very flat within the valley. And the walls of the valley are very steep.”

We have risen early to reach the launch site. A convoy of cars and trailers bump along a windy road in the dark. The specific launch site is chosen using real-time meteorological data.

“The first thing we do is send up a small helium balloon. As it climbs, we use a compass to track the direction it's moving,” explains Jacob.

This data is critical for the pilots’ ability to steer the balloons.

“There are different wind directions at different altitudes in the atmosphere.

“Some of these layers are as thin as three hundred feet, some are as thick as a few thousand feet.

“By tracking that helium balloon through the layers, we get an idea of how we can steer it.”

Around us, several other balloonists are preparing for liftoff. Baskets are unloaded from trailers, material is spread out along the paddock and gas burners are ignited.

With Jacob’s balloon fully inflated, we climb aboard and lift gently up out of the valley. He explains that, “It's not like sitting on the back of a motorcycle, where you've got the wind in your face. Balloons move with the wind and move at the same speed as the wind. So it's very, very stable.”

Here, high above the Valley, Jacob is in his element. He monitors the wind and guides his balloon confidently amongst the other balloonists.

Having completed fifty-five hours of ballooning, Jacob has the experience to read the changes in the wind speed and direction.

“Every single flight is different. It's always a new challenge to work out where the wind is going, and how to get from one site to another."

It's a challenge that Jacob welcomes. He is happy to be at the mercy of nature.

"Letting the wind decide your course is a feeling like no other."

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