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A Big Lift(off) for Israel

The great balloon race is on.

At 8 a.m. local time Tuesday, 50 of the brightly colored hot-air bags from 14 countries rose almost simultaneously from the Negev town of Arad, overlooking the Dead Sea.

They are competing in Israel’s second International Balloon Competition. But the contestants’ fortunes depend as much on the air currents and winds as on skill.

One foreign entrant reportedly sent a personal fax message to King Hussein of Jordan, asking permission to land if his balloon is blown there.

The event also signaled the opening of the two-day Israel Song Festival in Arad. And it marked the 206th anniversary of the first manned flight in an airborne device.

That occurred in 1783, when the French army, fighting Austria, lofted a balloon with an observer over the enemy’s positions. The Austrians, realizing the French could see their entire order of battle, beat a hasty retreat.