Whether it be filled with hot air or a giant Minnie Mouse, balloons are what Chris Bransgrove's life revolves around.

Yesterday was the first day of the Wairarapa Balloon Festival but, with a northeast wind blowing, the early morning mass ascension was called off; leaving pilots, enthusiasts and wistful passengers stranded on land.

Mr Bransgrove, a hobby hot air balloon pilot from Hamilton, said he has frequented the festival since its inception in 1999, "never missing a year".

With 32 years' ballooning experience he knows ideal flying conditions and, pointing to an air-borne kite at Carterton's Carrington Park, he said: "When you're flying kites you're not flying balloons."


Mr Bransgrove's three-man Remax C90 balloon is 90,000 cubic feet, meaning 90,000 basketballs could fit inside, and takes up to 30 minutes to set up.

His passion has filtered down to his two sons, who both enjoy flying hot air balloons. One is a commercial hot air balloon pilot and a pilot for Air New Zealand. His wife, Wendy, is a balloon enthusiast as well.

For the past 25 years the couple has run a business around inflatable advertising, making giant balloon and blimp replicas, with even the likes of Disney among their contracts.

Their balloon company, the oldest in the country, can make anything into an inflatable PVC replica, from animated movie characters for parades to a giant banana for the roof of a fruit shop.

"They're like inflatable billboards really," Mr Bransgrove said.

His balloon basket is kitted out with a transponder, which allows the balloon to be tracked by radar, and four tanks of gas that have been injected with nitro to give a turbo blast.

"It gives you twice as much grunt and you use less gas because of it. It doubles the power," he said.

The roof of a horse float has been heightened to house the Remax balloon, making it easy to cart around and means the frame on the basket can stay intact.

Often taking off from his own backyard, Mr Bransgrove averages 20 flights annually.

"Of that 20, we probably attempt it 40 times," he said.

To inflate the balloon the basket is laid on its side and the envelope of the balloon is connected to the frame. A fan fills the balloon with air and once pressurised, the burner is turned on. The heat brings the balloon upright, allowing it to rise.

It is safest to fly in cooler conditions, said Mr Bransgrove, who before each flight consults a "load sheet". This gives a guideline as to how high the balloon can go, taking weight and temperature into account.

"The hotter it is, the less weight you can take. The colder the conditions the more weight you can take and the higher you can safely fly," he said.

It is an expensive hobby, Mr Bransgrove admits, estimating each flight (taking into account insurance, maintenance and fuel) costs somewhere between $400 and $500.

"But what hobby isn't expensive?" he said. "People have boats and racing cars."

Mr Bransgrove's rides are usually an hour long and at a height of 2000 feet because of air zone restrictions in cities such as Hamilton and Palmerston North, where he normally flies.

He once reached 10,000 feet in New Zealand's first single man balloon, which he owned.

"With gas bottles strapped to my back," he said.

"I was sitting on a frame, like a very small chair with my legs dangling in the air."

In three decades he has taken part of most balloon fiestas around the country and has flown in Australia, Fiji, America. At the world's biggest hot air balloon festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2002 he came first in the "Flight of the Nations" event.

"It has been a great family sport and it's enabled us to travel around and see the country.

"We have made a lot of friends through the ballooning industry and we look forward to festivals like this to catch up with them."

The fickle wind was not friendly for school visits in the afternoon, with partial inflation only possible in front of students from Masterton Primary and Lakeview schools.