The Ocean Sky
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
This flight had been the
culmination of years, decades, of effort. Iíd been fascinated by balloons since
Iíd been a schoolboy, and in college Iíd studied aeronautics with one aim in
mind only; to know as much about balloons as I could, to become the worldís
greatest expert in the field if possible. I had joined a ballooning club early
on, and as I grew more experienced, I became convinced that there was only one
thing really worth doing. Others could have the endurance and long distance
records; Iíd go for height.
Of course, to do this,
Iíd need a special kind of balloon, one specifically made for altitude. I
designed it myself, and, with the help of the inheritance I got from my
parents, I constructed it. After several test flights, I was ready for the big
day at last. As I strapped in my parachute, an unfortunate but necessary
additional weight and precaution, my fellow balloon club members pumped the
translucent envelope full of hydrogen gas. It would of course have to be a
hydrogen balloon; helium was too heavy, and I couldnít even think of taking up
the additional weight of a hot-air burner and cylinders. That I had to take an
oxygen cylinder and mask up with me was already more weight than I could really
afford, but like the parachute, it was a necessity.
My friend Oskar, who had
been almost as fascinated by my project as I, and had helped in every way he
could, checked me over one last time, testing the buckles of my harness and my
parachute. "Are you quite sure you wonít take a radio?" he asked for the sixth
or seventh time, as he helped strap me into the seat and locked the bar into
"I told you," I replied
once again, "I canít afford the additional weight. And any radio I could take
up wouldnít have much in the way of range anyway."
Oskar looked up at the
envelope, which was now a billowing lighter patch against the pre-dawn sky. The
capsule surged, straining against the ropes holding it down. He nodded. "Well,
letís hope there isnít any emergency."
"Why should there be?" I
asked. "The weather forecast is perfect, thereís next to no wind, the balloon
is in excellent shape, Iím as fit as Iíll ever be, and we arenít anywhere near
the sea or something. Stop worrying, it never does any good."
"Youíre probably right,"
he said, sighing, and handed me the map on a clipboard heíd been carrying.
I nodded. The ropes fell
away, and with a lurch the balloon rose into the air.
Itís impossible, for
anyone whoís never been up in a balloon, to imagine the thoughts that go
through oneís mind as one makes an ascent like mine. As the ground fell away
below, the sky to the east brightened dramatically as I rose above the line of
the horizon. Then, with a flash, the rays of the still-hidden sun turned the balloonís
envelope into a huge teardrop of gold. I imagined that Oskar, who would
undoubtedly be following me through binoculars, would be able to see it too.
The silence, in a
balloon, canít be imagined. Not only is there no engine noise; since a balloon
moves exactly as fast as the wind, there is not even the rustle of a breeze.
The slightest sound below, the crowing of a cock as the sun rose, might be
clearly heard, if one were flying low, with ballast bags tied on; but I was
rising straight up, and so quickly that long before the sun painted the roofs
of the town I was wrapped in silence.
As the balloon rose, the
capsule turned slowly, spinning in a great circle taking in the horizon. I
wasnít very high yet, but it was already distinctly colder, despite the sun. I
was glad of my heavy gloves and boots, and of the thick flying suit. The sky
was clear, except where, very high above and well to the north, a few strands
of cirrus lay like ripples on the sand of a beach. It was going to be a great
day, I thought; the perfect day for my attempt. I felt like laughing.
The earth underneath fell
away into a flat sheet of brown and green. I had to concentrate on the
instruments, plotting my position on the map with the help of the compass and
the speed indicator. According to the readings, I must have encountered an
unexpected stream of wind, for I was further south than I expected. Not that I
could do much about it; and, as I rose further, I must have passed through the
wind stream, for I no longer drifted south according to the instruments.
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