“I flew hot balloons mostly in Japan, about three hours north of Tokyo,” Amano says. “When I was flying my balloon well, I felt like a wind-reader. You know, we can feel the wind, but we cannot see it, other than the direction the clouds are going. But there are so many layers of winds that if I go 100 feet higher, I may go a completely different direction. I don’t mind height, so going up was easy. Like with any other ‘sky sport,’ it is the going-down part—the landing—that’s scary. I had so many hard landings when I misjudged the field below me or when the wind kicked up after I took off.
“I once witnessed a balloon that was going up hit another balloon above it. Pilots cannot see what is above them because of the large envelope. The basket of the balloon above cut the envelope of the balloon below, and the latter started to lose the hot air and landed super-hard on the ground. That was really scary, but thankfully it didn’t happen too often.I liked ballooning because I got to make friends from all over the world. A Scottish pilot used to fly his balloon wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipe while he flew. I can play the piano, but not any instruments that I can fly with, so I was very envious of that pilot. I always thought it would be cool to fiddle while flying. Another good thing about ballooning, especially in Japan, was that it was considered a team sport. Without crew members, a pilot will not be able to fly. It is difficult to inflate the balloon, and as a pilot you need somebody to drive the chase vehicle and to pick up both you and the balloon when you land.
“The team I belonged to was sponsored by Honda at one point, and we took turns practicing and flying and participating in competitions.There are several kinds of competitions I took part in. One, Hare and Hound, is an event where the competition organizer takes off in a balloon and 30 minutes to an hour later, the competition balloons take off after it. The hare balloon lands before the hound balloons reach it and sets up a target (a large X) on the ground. Each hound pilot has a little marker (a small sand bag with a streamer), and the one who throws the marker closest to the center of the X is the winner.
“Sometimes, the organizer will set up two or three targets and announce them at the briefing, along with the weather conditions. The competitors have to find and hit all the targets. When the weather allows, these target-based events will sometimes be combined with an event called Elbow. Competitors need to hit the target, and then return to the start. The balloon that makes the smallest angle is the winner of the Elbow event. When we compete, each team is assigned an observer, basically an official who makes sure the balloon has a licensed pilot and that all the rules are followed. When I was young, I used to serve as an observer a lot, and that’s how I learned how to fly competitively.
“These events usually take place right after the sunrise and right before sunset when the wind is calm or nonexistent. It is illegal to fly balloons in the dark, because the balloons do not show up on the radar, and when the burner is not on, it is hard to see them. Each event has a special memory for me, so it’s hard to say which one is my favorite, but in 1995, I participated in the World Championship in Battle Creek, Michigan. I also served as a crew member for an Albuquerque, New Mexico, event in 1996. These two places were a lot of fun because there were so many balloons, but it also was a little nerve-racking because that meant more chances to collide with other balloons!
“In the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, there is a ballooning event every summer, and driving the balloon vehicle over there via ferry was always quite an adventure. Flying in Niigata, Japan, over snow-covered mountains in winter was beautiful, too, and after our flight, we would go to the hot spring spa to relax.
“A perfect ending to the day.”