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Friday, November 27, 1998 Published at 17:33 GMT

Flights of fancy - for you?

A one-off flight in a hot-air balloon in Britain may not be as expensive as you think.

Commercial operators like Virgin Balloon Flights charge 125 an hour, which includes insurance, a champagne reception and a commemorative certificate on your safe arrival.

You could probably find an even cheaper flight by looking up local companies in the Yellow Pages or on the Internet.

But Mike Gabb of the Association of Balloon Operators warns: "The public should be wary for their own safety and demand to see an air operator's certificate issued by the Civil Aviation Authority."

Burning a hole in your pocket

As the professionals know all too well, balloon trips are often cancelled because of poor weather conditions. Commercial operators run phone lines to save customers a wasted trip and re-arrange bookings at no extra cost.

If you get hooked and want more, it costs 18 a year to join the British Balloon and Airship Club, the national voluntary organisation for balloon flights. They have a list of regional clubs where you can get tuition and crewing experience.

A balloon of your own, bought in Britain, will set you back around 10,000. The equipment can easily be stored in a garage - but you will need a trailer to take it to the launch site of your choice.

Such a basic hot air balloon, however, will not take you around the world. A combined helium and hot air (Rozier) balloon as used during most long-distance flights is expensive. To pay for the balloon and all its technical back-up, ambitious balloonists will have come up with several million dollars.

If you can't take the heat...

Short-haul balloon trips are actually very safe. Crashing into power-lines is the biggest hazard. "You see the big ones, it's the smaller ones that people miss when coming in to land," says Mike Howard who was Britain's youngest balloon pilot when he qualified at the age of 17.

"You occasionally get sprained ankles during bumpy landings," he adds.

There is no upper age limit for a balloon trip, but the minimum height is 4ft 6in - just so you can look over the top of the basket and enjoy the view.

And you need to be healthy and fit enough to stand for about an hour or longer. Asthmatics would need to consult their doctor before booking a flight.

The key to comfortable ballooning is to wear several layers of clothing. Although it is cold up there, even on a winter flight the heat of the propane gas burner will soon warm you up.

Gloves are essential for rope-tugging, as are walking boots for digging in your heels into muddy fields.

And finally ... the Balloonist's Prayer

The winds have welcomed you with softness
The sun has held you in his warm hands
You have flown so high and so well
That God has joined you in your laughter
And set you gently back down
Into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

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