Flying high: the women balloonists looking down on men

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Twice women’s world hot air balloon champion Nicola Scaife is flying solo in a waist-high wicker basket, drifting along in the zephyr of a breeze about 240 metres above the ground.

At this height, you can hear dogs barking below. The only other noise is the whisper of the pilot light flame – ready when required to ignite a blast from the burner, firing heat into the mouth of the balloon envelope. The cars down there are dinky size, and if there’s smoke from a chimney below it provides a useful clue to the wind direction at ground level.

Next week, at the women’s world hot air balloon championships that are being held for the first time in Australia, Scaife hopes to make it a hat-trick of titles.

Her day job is flying passenger balloons that can carry more than 20 people, but she will compete flying solo in her “racing balloon” called Flow, a relatively small 1700 cubic metres (60,000 cu ft) balloon made by Australia’s only balloon manufacturer, Kavanagh Balloons.

Winner in Poland in 2014 and Lithuania in 2016, the 38-year-old mother of two from Newcastle, and the only entrant from NSW, knows all about the vagaries of the wind at different altitudes. She explains that some people think the championships are some sort of race.

“It is more about precision flying and navigation skills,” she says. The judges might lay out a 10 x 10 metre cross in a paddock and the pilots fly at different altitudes to find layers of winds of different speeds and directions to, hopefully, take them close to the target. Once overhead they drop a fabric streamer from the basket, and closest to the cross earns most points.

Hot air balloon pilot Nicola Scaife prepares for her last practice flight in the Hunter Valley before the championships next week.Credit: Janie Barrett

“We are flying in an aircraft with no rudder or steering wheel, and yet we still manage to get within centimetres of the target.”

The championships start next week at Northam, 100 kilometres east of Perth, with 30 pilots from 13 nations competing to demonstrate their flying skills and that they are, perhaps, not entirely at the mercy of the wind.

But why a separate competition for women? “The level of competition and skill in achieving these tasks and doing these flights is no different to what any pilot, male or female, would be doing,” Scaife said.

“Men often get first dibs in ballooning, and often the women are in the supporting role – they are the ground crew or looking after the children, and that’s the way society is set up.

Pilot Nicola Scaife inflates the balloon with the propane burner before take-off in the Hunter Valley.Credit: Janie Barrett

“It is really hard. It is such an effort for me and for a lot of these women to organise things so we can go out and compete. My first event was 10 years ago, but there are so many more women coming through now.

“There’s no reason why women can’t be as good at piloting a balloon as the men.”

Sanne Haarhuis, coming from The Netherlands, said: “We have been looking at the flying area and see that there will be some rolling hills that could affect the wind patterns at the surface. The practice flights will be important to get a sense of how the lay of the land comes into play in flight planning.”

British entrant Stephanie Hemmings said: “In previous years, I would’ve hoped to finish top 10 or even top five, but I’ve not been able to fly much this year, as I had a baby back in May, so I’m a little out of practice. I’m just going to try to fly my best, and hopefully, I can still finish in the top 20.”

Nicola Scarfe throws a streamer towards a target on the ground.Credit: Janie Barrett

The balloons will fly morning and evening, weather permitting, from September 2 to 9, competing in a variety of tasks. It’s the first time the Women’s World Championships have been held outside Europe. Entrants include five pilots from Australia as well as pilots from Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Japan, Poland and the United States.

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