About half a dozen companies offer a birds-eye view of Israel from the basket of a colorful hot-air balloon.
By Avigayil Kadesh
One night, Moran Itzckovich dreamed he saw a giant balloon. When he awoke, he immediately started searching the Internet for something that matched his nighttime vision.
“In Hebrew I found nothing on Wikipedia, but in English a whole new world opened up,” he reports. A couple of months later, Itzckovich was on an airplane to Utah, where he got certified to pilot a hot-air balloon.
“I bought a used balloon and shipped it to Israel and came back, but it took about two years till that balloon was up in the air,” says Itzckovich, now 32 and the founder of Over Israel.
Seeing the landscape of Israel from the basket of a hot-air balloon is a fun and unusual way to get acquainted with the land and, though it’s not cheap – the average price per passenger is NIS 1,000 (about $250) – natives and tourists seem to love it.
At least a half dozen other hot-air ballooning companies have cropped up since Over Israel made its debut in 2003, and every October there is a hot-air balloon festival in Ma’ayan Harod National Park at Mount Gilboa in the north, sponsored by the Gilboa Regional Council.
Powered by propane, the balloons are much less polluting than cars or aircraft, Itzckovich notes. And part of the fun is inflating the balloon together with the staff.
Inflating the balloon at dawn is part of the adventure.
Photo courtesy of Over Israel
“In 2012 we flew about 3,000 passengers,” he says. “A balloon is a symbol of freedom and peace, it’s very related to nature, it’s clean and it’s sexy.”
Champagne after landing
And it’s also romantic. “There are marriage proposals every two or three weeks on our flights,” says Almog Amir of Touch the Sky. “We get customers of all ages, usually celebrating something — a wedding, a birthday, an anniversary.”
Almog, 44, has flown 900 hours since earning his license in 2000 and starting Touch the Sky six years ago. Like Over Israel and some of his other competitors, he offers more than one location for launches, and ends the early-morning ride with an optional champagne breakfast. Passengers are airborne for an hour to 90 minutes depending on weather conditions.
Generally, a hot-air ballooning adventure lasts four to five hours, beginning with snacks and transportation from the parking area; inflating the hot-air balloon; sunrise lift-off; gliding at an altitude of up to 2,000 feet; and ending with a champagne toast and breakfast upon landing. Each participant gets a certificate and suggestions for continuing the day touring the area.
“This is a great and affordable way to get in the air above the Israeli desert in the south or in the amazing Gilboa Mountain area in the north,” Almog says. “Our customers see really half the country, from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Gilead Mountains of Jordan in the east.”
The view from above. Photo courtesy of Over Israel
Balloons usually accommodate four to 18 people. Rize Up has three balloons, so it can send a group of about 30 up in the air simultaneously. The Jezreel Valley-based company, whose pilots trained in California, also does illuminated nighttime flights, “Fiesta Flights”– tethered flights for large groups – plus promotional flights as a showcase at events.
Just the right location
Itzckovich decided to base Over Israel permanently at Kibbutz Ruhama in the northern Negev, following a much-publicized two-week balloon trek he took in 2008 from the northern Hula Valley to the southern Ramon Crater.
“I was looking for a large piece of land, and the weather is perfect most of the year here, so we get lots of flying days,” he explains. “Now we also operate up north in the Jezreel Valley and the Gilboa, as well as in Sde Boker in the southern Negev.” Over Israel also offers the option of a post-balloon overnight stay with spa treatments at a bed and breakfast.
“Flying on a hot-air balloon is like no other experience. The silence and beauty during the flight can only be possible with this unique aviation device that makes you feel like you are floating on air,” Itzckovich says. “Part of hot-air balloon magic is seeing the sun come up from afar when you are already in the basket and up in the sky.”
Rize offers a workshop where participants each build and fly a miniature hot-air balloon from colored paper, following an explanation of hot-air balloons, their history, their use through the years and the way they work.
Just like the Wright brothers invented the airplane, a pair of French brother launched the first manned hot-air balloon in Paris in 1782. The craft consists of a balloon called the “envelope” with a gondola or wicker basket suspended underneath. Heated air inside the envelope, usually generated by an open flame, makes it buoyant.
Balloons need weather conditions of good visibility and a wind of less than 10 knots. The pilot controls the altitude and direction by entering air masses moving in different directions. In Israel, hot-air balloons undergo periodic examinations from the aerial qualification board of the Civilian Aircraft Authority.
The activity is considered safe, although most companies do not allow pregnant women or children under six or seven years old aboard.