Floating on the air in the Negev

Pioneering pilot Moran Izkovitz takes a group up for a spin in the largest hot-air balloon in the country.

Hot air balloon (photo credit: Barry Davis)
Hot air balloon
(photo credit: Barry Davis)
Early 20th-century Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont described the experience of flying in a hot air balloon graphically and succinctly when he said, “The balloon seems to stand still in the air while the earth flies past underneath.”
After taking a trip in Moran Izkovitz’s giant balloon recently, I can categorically state that Dumont got it spot on.
I joined a group of other journalists for an exhilarating trip over the Negev, elegantly and affably piloted by Izkovitz from the Over Israel company. We arrived at the take-off spot, near Kibbutz Ruhama, just after dawn. The air was crisp, and what looked like a gargantuan green and white tarpaulin was spread out on the parched ground with a large basket container attached at one end.
There was a palpable sense of excitement and expectancy as the journalists gathered round to see what Izkovitz would do with the enormous piece of prostrate cloth. Suddenly the stillness of the early morning was ruptured by the volcanolike blast of the balloon burners, and the cloth began to fill up and billow with hot air.
A few facts and figures can help to put things in perspective.
Izkovitz got the hot air balloon bug one night in 2003.
“I had a dream that I was piloting a balloon,” he says. “I had never even considered the idea before and I told my partner Shimrit, now my wife, about it.
Instead of dismissing the idea, she said. ‘Let’s go for it.’” The couple quickly took themselves off to Utah in the US, where Izkovitz learned to be a balloon pilot. The dream had come true.
The balloon we were about to step into and fly up into the great blue beyond was filling up nicely, and the dimensions were beginning to become apparent. Walking into the expanding space felt like entering a full-size sports arena.
Fully inflated, the balloon contains 8,500 cubic meters of hot air and towers 32 meters into the air. The craft we were due to lift off in is the largest hotair balloon in the country.
Considering that Izkovitz was the first balloon pilot in Israel, it seems only fair that he should also command the biggest of its kind here.
With the balloon full and upright, we all clambered aboard and, after a quick landing drill from Izkovitz – “Bend your knees, back to the landing direction and grab the loops in the sides of the basket” – we took off.
Actually, had I not seen the ground receding with my own eyes, I would not have thought we were airborne. There can be no experience so antithetic to taking off in an airplane. There is no roar as the jet engines rev up to maximum before the plane hurtles along the runway.
In fact, there is no sense of lift-off at all. One minute you’re on terra firma, and the next you silently sail up into the air.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of mist around that morning so we had to make an unscheduled landing while our pilot awaited clearance to resume the flight. Eventually we took off again and were soon half a kilometer up, floating above low wispy clouds, treetops and ploughed fields as we crossed part of what Izkovitz calls “the wide shoulders of Israel.”
“The Negev is an ideal area for balloon flying,” he told us en route. “The only thing you have to be wary of is hot weather because the thermals make it hard to land.” That’s why flights generally take place in early morning.
The flight was over all too soon, but we were welcomed back on the ground by a chilled bottle of champagne and a tasty breakfast next to a grapefruit orchard. Then it was back to four wheels and the road home.
For prices and more information about Over Israel: 057-290-0007; www.overisrael.co.il