The amazing experience of flying with a hot-air balloon over the Lasithi Plateau in Crete. The Plateau is an ancient lake bed, surrounded on all sides by the huge mass of the majestic Dikti Mountains.
By Tony Cross
For someone who is afraid of heights, it’s amazingly calming flying high above the ground whilst being held aloft by nothing more than hot air.
Thanks to VIVA Let’s Fly!, who run regular balloon flights over the stunning Lasithi Plateau, the ballooning experience is now available to anyone who visits eastern Crete. The company offers a variety of packages in one of two balloons; a large one that can carry up to ten passengers, and a smaller and more intimate one, that carries only three passengers (which we chose).
Ballooning is an early morning sport, and we had to meet Mindaugas, our pilot, at the western end of the plateau at 6:30 am! Mindaugas is a highly experienced hot-air balloon pilot from Lithuania, and his positive attitude to safety put us at ease immediately.
One of the first things he did was to release a small helium-filled balloon, to monitor the wind strength and direction at the altitudes we would be flying and to determine whether it was safe for us to fly at all.
We soon found that passengers are expected to help with the unpacking and inflating of hot air balloons! To be honest, it was more fun helping out than just standing around and watching.
Once everything was unpacked, and before inflation began, Mindaugas gave us a safety briefing, explaining how to get into and out of the basket (which isn’t that easy, as you do need to be agile), where to stand and what not to touch once in the air, and where to hold on in-flight and when landing.
Once the balloon was inflated and we were all in the basket, Mindaugas radioed air traffic control for permission to take-off, just like any other aircraft. The take-off was so gentle, the basket slid a few centimeters over the grass, and then we were flying!
Apart from our talking, the only noise was the occasional whoosh of the gas burner. It was unlike any other type of flying that I have experienced, mainly because you’re outside and can feel the breeze on your face.
Breathtaking views of the Crete plateau from the hot-air balloon
The views were breathtaking. The Lasithi Plateau is an ancient lake bed, surrounded on all sides by the huge mass of the majestic Dikti Mountains. Some of those peaks rise to over 2km above sea level.
Soon we were flying at 450 meters above the ground, and the whole plateau was laid out below us. We had risen almost vertically, but now the winds at altitude began to move us quite rapidly eastwards. Mindaugas began to reduce height, using a large valve in the top of the balloon.
To give us the full ballooning experience, Mindaugas flew us at various heights, as he said; “just because we can.” At one point, we were gliding over field after field of gently ripening crops, at barely 20 meters above the ground. We got a few worried looks from farmers who thought we were landing in the midst of their precious crops!
Climbing higher we could fully appreciate the immensity of the agriculture that the plateau supports. It was only when Mindaugas asked us to start looking for vacant fields in which to land, that we realized that every field below us was full of crops…
Just as I was wondering who would pay for any damage that we might cause, Mindaugas calmly said “hold, hold, hold”, which was the signal for us to hold on to special loops in the basket, ready for landing. Mindaugas put us down with only a gentle bump, bang in the middle of a narrow dirt road between two fields full of crops.
Descend near a farm on the Lasithi plateau
We were all told to get out of the basket but to hold on to loops on the outside. To my amazement, Mindaugas kept the balloon flying at about half a meter above the ground whilst we walked the basket and balloon along the road to a spot where the balloon could be deflated without causing damage to any crops.
I can only imagine what the watching farmers thought, as they saw three people walking a fully inflated hot-air balloon about 50 meters along a dirt road!
Once the balloon was rolled away and packed in its bag and we’d all helped man-handle the basket back onto the trailer, it was time for our champagne breakfast.
The cost of this is included in the price of the flight, and Mindaugas explained that having a champagne breakfast after a hot air balloon flight is a tradition that dates back to the Montgolfier brothers.
They made the first hot air balloon flight, of course, although they apparently thought it was the smoke that was the lifting agent rather than the hot air. After they had landed, they opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate and were treated to breakfast by the farmer in whose field they had landed.
Our champagne breakfast was at the excellent Halavro Kouzina, which is close to the famous Psychro Cave (Diktaion Antron), and with views over the plateau. As well as a delicious breakfast and a glass of champagne, we received certificates of our flight and souvenir hats.
It was a wonderful experience and one that we will repeat.