Cappadocia Hot Air Balloons – Behind the Scenes

One of the most popular tourist activities in Cappadocia is a sunrise hot air balloon ride. The balloon gives you an amazing vantage point on the unique terrain of the region while allowing you to cover a lot more ground than you could while on foot. Unfortunately, hot air balloon rides are expensive and since I have an irrational fear of riding in them, we opted to try something different instead.

We contacted a hot air balloon company, Turkiye Balloons, and asked them if we could tag along with them in the morning and get a feel for what goes on behind-the-scenes during these tours (and of course snap some pictures along the way). They generously agreed, and didn’t even charge us for the privilege.

We woke up well before the crack of dawn, around 4:00 am, to walk from our hotel down to Turkiye Balloons’ offices. The customers start arriving around 4:30 – they are picked up at their hotel if they are staying more than a couple blocks from the office, while those staying close-by just walk over. The company offers a buffet breakfast in their large reception area, and there were a couple kittens in the office that I played with while we waited for the customers to finish breakfast.

Half-awake Adam getting some water at the breakfast buffet.

Half-awake Adam getting some water at the breakfast buffet.

At about 4:45, we headed out to the launch site with the staff to watch them set up the balloons. If you’ve never seen this happen and always wondered how it works, here’s an explanation: they lay out the balloon flat on the ground and smooth it out, with the gondola attached and laying on its side, burner and all. Then they set up huge fans next to the opening at the bottom, turn them on, and hold the balloon open so the air starts feeding in. Once the balloon starts to look a little inflated, they fire up the burner. The fans continue to blow air into the balloon, while the burner heats the air. Eventually, the balloon starts to rise up, it pulls the gondola up with it, and they anchor it to the ground with ropes so people can board.

Inflating one of the balloons.

Inflating one of the balloons.

The valley is full of balloon operators, hundreds of them, so as we watch our guys inflate their balloons, hundreds of others slowly inflate and pop up in all directions as far as we can see. It’s quite a sight.

The vans full of customers arrive 15 minutes before sunrise, with the balloons inflated and ready to go. After everyone boards and gets a brief “don’t do anything stupid” safety talk, the ropes anchoring the balloon to ground are untied, and the balloon shoots up into the sky, much, much faster than we expected. It was graceful and silent, but fast. Nearly simultaneously, hundreds of other balloons launch.

Our balloon all fired up and ready to launch.

Our balloon all fired up and ready to launch.

This picture doesn't really do the scene justice - there are just hundreds of balloons taking off at once.

This picture doesn’t really do the scene justice – there are just hundreds of balloons taking off at once.

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And at the same time, the balloon operators know how to separate and give their customers a truly unique view from their very own patch of sky.

After the launch, we head out to follow the balloons in our truck. While we’re driving, we ask a bunch of questions and learn some things about how this whole thing works:

  • The balloons can go as high as a few thousand feet and as low as 5 feet. The operator has very fine control over the altitude.
  • The operator steers the balloons using wind currents. If they need to go east, they climb/descend to an altitude where the prevailing winds push them east, for example.
  • Control over direction is not as fine as control over altitude, but the operators generally aim for a few landing areas they are familiar with and that have nearby road access for the truck.

Our guys launched two balloons today, and our truck is tracking one of them – a large gray and yellow checkered one. We follow it for 45 minutes or so, watching as the operator deftly maneuvers down to 10 feet of altitude to give everyone a great close-up of some rock outcroppings before shooting up to 500 feet to head across the valley to a canyon.

Getting really close to the ground to investigate some rock formations.

Getting really close to the ground to investigate some rock formations.

We follow for about an hour and then it’s time for the balloons to land.  After communicating with the balloon operator by phone, the landing area he’s heading for is determined, and we drive off ahead of the balloon to meet them. The area where they are coming in is a mostly-flat field about 150 yards from a road, dotted with some large (10-25 feet) boulders. As we wait for our balloon, we see some others coming in for a landing. Most of the landings are smooth, but we do see one rough one – the balloon comes in fairly quickly and the gondola slams into the side of a 25 foot boulder. Just before impact, the operator instructed everyone to duck, which they did. The balloon came to rest on the ground about 10 seconds later, everyone was ok, and everyone in the balloon broke out in applause.

This balloon is heading straight for that huge rock on the right.

This balloon is heading straight for that huge rock on the right.

After touching down, everyone is alright, and the passengers are ready to unload.

After touching down, everyone is alright, and the passengers are ready to unload.

Once our balloon landed (quite smoothly, I might add), the company handed out printed certificates, offered a champagne toast, and took everyone’s picture. They were even nice enough to print out certificates for each of us, noting “Ground Crew” on them .

Champagne toast after landing.

Champagne toast after landing.

Us with our "ground crew" certificates.

Us with our “ground crew” certificates.

We had a great time with the team, learned a lot, and got some excellent pictures. I’m sure we’ll visit Cappadocia again, and when we do, we’ll spring for the balloon ride for sure (fear be damned), and we’ll certainly be riding with Turkiye Balloons.

Thanks to the team for driving us around, answering our questions, and just generally being awesome to talk to.

Thanks to the team for driving us around, answering our questions, and just generally being awesome to talk to.

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