World Air Games wrap-up... as experienced by this non-flying WAG!

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“Do you want to spend two weeks in Dubai in December? All you have to do is buy your flight tickets. We’ll ship your balloon equipment and cover all in-country costs for you and three team mates, this includes; three (delicious buffet) meals a day, van hire, transport to and from the airport, two hotel rooms, some cool merchandise, you’ll see lots of other great airsports athletes doing their thing, we’ll also put on an amazing multi-million dollar opening ceremony complete with acrobatics, singing and dancing, fountains and fireworks, and flame lighting ceremony, the Crown Prince of Dubai will be there… so whaddya say?".

“Ummmm, yeah, ok”

“Welcome to the 2015 World Air Games!”

Seventy of the world’s best balloon pilots came together over the first two weeks in December to participate in the ballooning component of the World Air Games (WAG). Hot air ballooning was one of 11 Air sports represented with other disciplines such as paramotoring, gliding, rotorcraft, model aircraft and parachuting all competing for glory in their respective fields. We really had no idea what to expect of the event or even Dubai for that matter, but accepted the invitation eagerly. The WAG coincided with the UAE’s 44th National day ‘Spirit of the Union’ celebrations. The whole city was looking it’s finest when we arrived, with the UAE flag flag adorning houses, apartment and office blocks and cars all proudly displaying the flag and images of the Royal family.

Matthew was one of only two Aussie balloonists able to attend and ranked high enough on the world-ranking list to get an invite. Sean Kavanagh made up the other half of the team. Most of the athletes were grouped into accommodation according to their country however because ballooning runs a little differently than most disciplines all of the balloonists were put up in two hotels in an area called Al Barsha. This is where the (must been seen to be believed, ginormous) Mall of the Emirates and Ski Dubai (indoor ski park) is located. Conveniently our hotel, The Grand Excelsior, was also the competition centre. Even more fantastically, the whole hotel was built to look like a cruise ship, complete with internal glass elevators that were a hit with The Kid. Breakfast and Dinner were buffet style and served at the hotel. Lunch was catered for in giant food marquees at both of the main competition areas, The Skydive Dubai Palm drop-zone (DZ) or Desert DZ. We tried both and they were both pretty phenomenal, the food tent at The Palm even had an ice sculpture as its centerpiece each day (seriously!). I don't know how many litres of hommus and babaganoush I ate over the fortnight but I know I was a pretty happy little vegetarian!

As I wrote in my previous post, the competition started with a 3-task flight then was on hold for two days due to strong winds. The rest of the week went OK, Matt finished in 13th place, but the competition was a little hit-and-miss. The event director, Claude Weber and his team seemed to be quite limited in what they could do due to certain restrictions in airspace and flying area. The event directors of each sport would have a meeting each evening to discuss their timings, airspace requirements and locations for the next day’s competition. As any balloonist knows, planning for the next day’s flight, and especially a competition flight, is very difficult to get spot on! I think partly because of that, nine tasks were achieved in five flights, a third being Hare and Hounds. Very frustrating for the pilots and maybe the event director too! I didn't go out every flight due to Hugo being pushed to his limit of sightseeing and sleep deprivation and needing a few rest periods, so here are a few of Matthew’s highlights:

  • The second last morning flight, a 3-task flight where he won two out of the three tasks and in the 3rd task threw 60cm to come mid-pack (!!). He loved the fly-in to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s private airstrip, a green oasis in the desert, surrounded by a camel racing track. Flying over packs of racing camels being taken through their paces in the early morning…only in Dubai!
  • The very memorable last competition flight in the desert. Enjoying the solitude of flying in the desert, with rolling sand dunes as far as the eye could see, dropping right to the surface and contour flying over the dunes.
  • And of course… Flying out of the World Islands (more to follow), possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity.

An absolute highlight of the trip for me was Matt taking Hugo and I for a flight from The Palm DZ. We couldn't resist the opportunity to take Hugo for his first flight in such an amazing flying area; so we sat him on a gas tank, strapped him in with a tank strap and off we flew! It was an incredible flight, flying low out over the Arabian Gulf to The Palm and then climbing high to get back onto land, flying just to the west of the city high rises then out to the edge of the desert. Hugo was as cool as a cucumber sitting hanging over the edge of the basket pointing out boats, flags and mosques and other balloons. It is a flight I will never forget.

On the final afternoon of the WAG as the closing ceremony and air show were taking place at The Palm DZ, just over 20 balloons ascended from the World Islands, targeting the (400m x 200m) Palm DZ. It was a huge exercise in organisation and logistics with 2 separate boat trips taking around 20 balloons and vehicles at a time across 15km of ocean to a giant sandbar! There were many car bogging’s in the sand, plenty of sunburn, balloons being scorched on windy inflations and countless numbers of amazing stories and images that came out of that flight. Hugo and I went to the DZ to take in the closing events and wait for the balloons. 16:30 was the latest time that the balloons were to launch to give them time to clear the ocean and city and find somewhere to land before sunset (17:20). At around this time the wind at the DZ was blowing considerably, and the windsock was horizontal. I had no doubt that they would have cancelled the launch from the completely unprotected World Islands and felt so disappointed for everyone and the effort and whole day involved to get out there. Nevertheless, Hugo and I walked to a point where we had an unobstructed view in the direction of where the balloons should have been launching. I can’t tell you how shocked I was when I saw 15 or so balloons in the air and more popping up behind, the surface wind was surely 15+kts. 

The next thirty minutes was quite exciting as the balloons made their one attempt at landing at the DZ, too far left and you were flying over skyscrapers, too far right and you were in the ocean! The balloons that did make it onto the DZ were greeted at landing by at least 10 people hanging on to their baskets to try to stop the balloons a quickly as possible. The crowd loved it! For me, it looked like absolute chaos, especially when one of the first balloons to arrive misjudged his overshoot climb out and flew into a giant TV screen. As you can imagine, the energy and excitement of the pilots, passengers and crews who took part was palpable. Matt and many others report that it was the most memorable flight of their lives. As the sun set and the balloons were being packed away that windsock was still horizontal!

It was an unbelievable 2 weeks in Dubai, I can’t imagine I will ever attend an event quite like this one again. As much as I would have loved to be flying, it was not such a bad event to be watching from the ground. My balloon will also be cleaner for a little longer as a result! A big thank-you to all involved in making WAGDubai2015 such a memorable time.

*(I will be submitting an edited version of this post to our balloon federation magazine as an article for the next issue so that's why it probably seems more fabulously written than previous blog posts ;-) ...