23 Feb 2022

Ballooning in Georgia: A History

By: Revaz Uturgauri, President of the National Aeronautics Federation of Georgia.

Ties to Paris 1783

In 2005, I set myself the goal of founding hot air ballooning in Georgia.

For starters, I decided to find out all I could about the national history of this sport. So, I headed for the archives and was surprised to find some unique documents. It turns out that Georgians were right there when ballooning began!

In November 1783, when thousands of Parisians gathered to watch the first ascensions in hot air balloons, there happened to be a Georgian in the crowd. His “Word on Ballooning” to Tsar Irakli the Second can be found in the Manuscript Department of the Georgian State Museum of History.

Our fellow countryman gives a detailed description of the first flight in France, supplementing his story with skillful drawings. It is particularly worth noting that in addition to such important details as the structure of the balloon, the fuel used, and so on, the Georgian tells his Tsar that the pilots took wine with them on the flight, also providing the exact number of bottles!

Hot air balloon flights were not carried out in Georgia until 100 years later. The first balloon flight was undertaken by Frenchman Bédée. This fact was recorded by the local press. Bédée took off from the Mushtaidi Gardens, reached a height of 300 metres and landed not far away. The Frenchman carried out several exotic flights in Tiflis.                        

Ballooning in Georgia History

Donkeys and acrobatics

Ten years later, a balloonist named August Gordon came to Georgia. He went up in a balloon, sitting on a donkey instead of riding in a basket. August performed acrobatic exercises in the air, and then jumped down using a parachute. He was certainly a daring pilot, but he ran into some difficulties in Tiflis when the locals refused to consider gusting winds a serious reason to cancel his flight. Gordon also took a donkey up with him. During the flight he mounted the animal, whereupon the poor donkey took fright and started up a horrendous braying.

A history of Ballooning in Georgia

After August left, local Tiflis businessmen Poladov, Gumiashvili and Bakradze decided to organise commercial balloon flights in the capital. During the public festivities in Alexandrovsky Gardens, they followed the French example and decided to give hot air balloon rides in the company of a donkey. But nothing came of it. No one wanted to fly in the balloon, particularly with a donkey.

The donkey was sent off into the sky on its own. The balloon came down in Avlabari near Metekhi Castle. When the businessmen got there, they found to their dismay that the basket was empty, the donkey had been stolen. The owner of the donkey had to be compensated for his loss. According to eyewitnesses, the businessmen had to fork out 20 roubles — quite a lot of money in those days.

Georgia's first Balloon Pilot goes missing

The first native Georgian balloonist appeared in the early twentieth century. His name was Vladimir Garakanidze. In January 1927, he decided to fly from Moscow to Gorky in a homemade 300 m3 gas balloon. The balloon had no basket. Ropes were tied to the envelope, and a wooden plank was attached to the ropes.

Vladimir Garakanidze Balloonist Georgia
Vladimir Garakanidze

Garakanidze, wearing an army greatcoat and boots with leggings, climbed onto the plank and took off jauntily into the sky with the temperature dipping as low as minus 17 degrees Celsius. He did not arrive at his destination that evening, or the next day. Two days later, search parties set off along the flight route to look for the balloonist’s frozen body, but to no avail.

Nothing was heard about the pilot’s fate until a week later. It transpired that the pilot had been caught in a strong air current that took him in an entirely different direction. He sat on his plank for three days, hungry and frozen, clinging onto the ropes for dear life. The balloon bobbed around and gyrated like crazy in the wind, whereby the entire flight took place in a thick fog. It ended in the Severodvinsk Region 702 km away!

He told the astonished people of the remote woodland village he ended up in that he was from Moscow, had fallen from the sky, and was very cold and very hungry. Four days later, Garakanidze managed to get by sled to the nearest railroad station, where there was a telegraph office. He took his balloon, neatly rolled up and without a mark or tear on it, with him.

The Moscow newspaper Izvestia wrote the following about this account: “Yesterday it was brought to our attention that comrade Garakanidze has set a world record in amateur ballooning (…) Labourers should know about comrade Garakanidze, a young worker who has conquered the skies!”         

Georgians can be truly proud of their countryman. His record was not a shot in the blue. Later he became a famous balloonist and made many daring flights in hot air balloons and dirigibles, even landing on the top of Mount Elbrus.  Another important fact in Garakanidze’s biography is that one of his students was a young man named Sergei Korolev, the future founder of the Soviet space industry.

2006: a new symbol and the first open championship

These fascinating facts about the history of Georgian ballooning filled me with the desire to continue it in an honourable way. So, I made two important decisions — first, to declare the Donkey a symbol of Georgian hot air ballooning in memory of its pioneers and second, to achieve high competitive results for its successors.

Creating the symbol was relatively easy. But the second decision took a lot more effort to bring to fruition. I do not need to tell you how difficult it is to organise a hot air ballooning event, especially for the first time. Nevertheless, the first Georgian Ballooning Open Championship was held a year later in 2006.   

Early October is the best time of year for this kind of event in Georgia — a mild sun shines in a clear blue sky, the harvest has been gathered and young wine is maturing in the wineries. So you have all the time in the world to fly!

Teams from the UK, Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Japan gathered in Georgia. The flights were scheduled to take place in the picturesque valley where I first saw myself riding in a balloon. Mtskheta, the ancient capital of our country, was chosen as the competition centre.

However, we ran into some difficulties — on the eve of the competition a north-western wind began to blow. This meant that from the very start, we would be flying straight toward the international airport and crossing the glide path. No air traffic controller would ever permit this. I had to call the chief of air navigation:                             
“What should we do?! Cancel the opening of the championship?!”
In reply I heard:          
“Don’t worry. Our guests have come from far away to support a good cause in Georgia! In honour of that, we will move all the planes aside. You can fly in any direction you want between five and eight pm.”  (This is Georgia, baby! This is Georgia!!!)      
Thank heavens, we had managed to resolve that problem!

But then another problem arose — it started pouring with rain! So I went to Jvari monastery, which is located near Mtskheta on the top of a high mountain. It is one of the main Christian shrines in Georgia. The balloons were due to take off nearby it the next day. When I explained why I was there, the monks opened the shrine for me, even though it was late at night.                         
“Lord,” I said, “you see how hard we’ve tried! We’ve done everything humanly possible! Now it’s your turn — help us with the weather!”
And believe it or not, the next day, at twelve o’clock sharp, the rain stopped. The sun shone brightly, and a strong wind blew. It dried the ground. At five o’clock the wind died down and turned one hundred and eighty degrees, that is, in the opposite direction from the airport. The conditions couldn’t have been better!           

Thousands of people came to the opening of the first Georgian championship in Mtskheta. Busloads of schoolchildren arrived. Dressed in their national costumes, they performed folk dances and sang songs. Lively music could be heard all around.

After the teams paraded in and made their preparations, the balloons began to rise into the air. People were shouting ecstatically, and many had tears of joy in their eyes. At that moment I was relieved to see I wasn’t the only crazy person in the country.

To cut a long story short, during the first year of our activity we drew up and finalised standard civil aviation documents for regulating balloon flights in the country’s airspace. We established a pilot school, a maintenance centre, and our own air company. We drew up provisions on setting national records, approved by the Ministry of Sports, and later set five such records, three of which are in force. We purchased eight balloons and held five Open Ballooning Championships in Georgia.

Revaz Uturgauri

Revaz Uturgauri is President of the National Aeronautics Federation of Georgia, delegate to FAI, a Chief Pilot Instructor and three-time national record holder in ballooning.