On 25 Nov, 2005 at 5am, I left home for Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi racecourse. It was still dark then. I got a bus going to Andheri station easily. With all the inside lights on and my sleepiness yet to wear off, the bus looked so dreamy. From Andheri station I took a slow train to Mahalaxmi. Mumbai has slow and fast trains. Fast ones have limited stops, while slow stop on all stations. There was place to sit; but I decided to stand near the entry to get strong breeze on my face to get rid of drowsiness. After a while I sat down and checked my belongings, mainly my camera, extra film roll etc. I was yet to get my first digital camera then. Mission was to watch a ‘mission near impossible’ by Indian industrialist and sports adventurer, Dr. Vijaypat Singhania (CEO Raymond). He was to fly in a hot air balloon with the intention of creating a new world record. The previous record had been held by the Britain based Swede, Per Lindstrand since June 6, 1988, after touching 64,997 ft in Texas. So Mr. Lindstrand held on to that record for long 17 years! There were not many chances that it would fall easily. Because of this, I knew the importance of this mission; and that is why I did not want to miss the opportunity to watch its starting point. I got off at Mahalaxmi station and came up near the high level road facing the race course. A large area in the middle had been cordoned off. The balloon was being inflated far in the distance. It was so exciting. I took some pictures of completely a new visual of the panorama, a large red and yellow balloon changing shapes in the middle of huge space of race course. Then I took a cab up to the gate and walked in. Race course is for horses to run. They go around it in seconds. But it took me 15 min walk to get close to the balloon. There were placards announcing “MI70K (Mission Impossible 70,000) History in the making”. Not too many people were there. Mostly technicians and engineers were working in various areas. Well I could not get much closer; but I took a lot of pictures of the gadgets and the ambiance. To my pleasant surprise the horses came out to practice. Watching them run close by was exhilarating. That meant clicking some more pictures! As the sun came up I got information that take off has been postponed to next day, due to high air turbulence. Well, it seemed that I had reached the racecourse a day too early. I indulged in shooting pictures of those lovely horses doing their practice runs. Later it was great to watch the sunrise from such an open space, and not to forget brisk walking 2 rounds of the course. The walking-track runs inside parallel to the racetrack made for the superior beings. It took me nearly 30 min to do one round. A Walk on the racecourse tack has been in my ‘to-do’ agenda for many years! In fact it was a revelation that one does not have to be a member of the Turf Club to get inside for a morning walk. It is open for all. So I relaxed, enjoyed my walk and then walked out to the bus stop and soon was home for breakfast.
Next day on Nov 26, I was even more serious to reach Mahalaxmi on time, because I was sure that in all probability this was going to be the ‘historical day’. Near the gallery steps they had placed large screens showing the visuals from a multi-camera setup. It was good to watch close up of the capsule and activities around it. The sound track was filling-in the details of Dr. Singhania’s previous records. One of them was flying in a Microlite aircraft from UK to India in 1988. This is record that he still holds. I was lucky to see this tiny plane from close quarters and also meet Dr. Singhania at Pune airport. He had just finished his great adventure then. I found it really very brave. He showed us the pressure marks on his knees due to constantly being pressed against the dash board of the tiny plane. The second record was winning the world air race in 1994.
Near the launch site the atmosphere was electric. There were a lot of people. Most of them seemed to be from Dr. Singhania’s office. Raymond is huge organization and Dr. Singhania has a lot of friends in every field. There were many celebrities. I got a chance to say hello to Dr. Jagmohan Mundhra and Mr. Vinod Khanna (a famous actor and an MP). Mr. Khanna was accompanied by Mr. A. Parthasarthi (an expert on Vedanta). Just before entering the capsule Dr. Singhania waved to everyone. Crowd responded by waving and clapping for long time. The door shut securely. The capsule seemed pretty small. It may have space for just one person to stand or sit on a chair. If it had to take a man to edge of space, it had to be highly technical. Other than life support and flight control equipment, Capsule had advanced communication system. It also was insulated and pressurized to the perfection. Since at its maximum height the outside temperature might be nearly -100C and atmospheric pressure will be so rare that it could kill you instantly. A huge flame was being fired inside the balloon to make the inner air hot. The balloon was now becoming taller and bigger. At its peak its height was supposed to be equivalent to a 20-story building! The take-off time was close. Finally the wait was over and capsule lifted from the ground in a shaky manner as it was still tied to the ground. It was really a wonderful moment. My heart was beating hard. Everyone was clapping. As balloon’s lifting power built up it was untied and allowed to move on its very fateful journey at 6.39AM. The capsule swayed unsteadily for a few moments. Excited crowd cheered and clapped as capsule gained height. Capsule was now just above us all and moving south slowly. From Mumbai’s point of view, it moved towards Peddar road, soaring over tall buildings. Within 5 minutes of lift off I felt that balloon was losing height. I was worried. I watched other faces to confirm my doubt. Everyone seemed worried. There was a young couple next to me who shared my apprehension with ‘oh my god’. Still above those tall Pedder road buildings, I saw a whole lot of flames being fired into the balloon to counter a possible descent, followed by a lot of smoke escaping from top of the balloon. That smoke got me very worried. Kerosene is used for igniting the fire up to a certain altitude. Soon the smoke vanished and balloon started moving higher. Its path curved towards northwest, above the sea and gained good height. People started moving off. I watched it moving fast above the sea. It was looking very small now. Soon tall buildings of Worli blocked its view and I too turned back slowly and decided to take a walk on Haji Ali-Worli road. After witnessing an important event, I prefer to spend some quiet time with myself. Last time it was when I attended the Zubin Mehta show. It helps me absorb the show into my system. I do not feel like coming out of that mood too quickly. There was a lingering apprehension too; whether the mission will be accomplished? If not then I hope Dr. Singhania lands back safely… I walked towards Worli for about 15 minutes and sat down for a cup of tea.
PS: At 8.55 AM Dr. Vijaypat Singhania broke the previous world record of 64,997 ft. And while flying above Ulhasnagar he created a new hot air balloon record of 69,852 ft. He could not touch 70000ft as planned. He said later ‘it was not worth it to endanger life for the sake of 148ft’. So from the edge of space, he decided that it was good time to return home to family and friends. His balloon landed safely near Nasik at 11.30 AM. The record was monitored by the Aero Club of India. It was later recognized by Federation Aeronautique Internationale as an international record.