Saturday, 9 January 2010

What goes up...

Some years ago, I used to do a lot of hot-air balloon retrieval, as a friend of mine was training for his pilot's licence.

Launching and following a balloon in the summer months, means starting work at about 5.00 in the morning, or finishing at about 10.30 at night, as these periods are the ones which can be most relied upon for stable and predictable weather-patterns, which is what you need if you are taking up groups of paying customers. They pay quite a lot too - ballooning is one of the most expensive forms of air-travel there is.

The procedure for a morning launch was as follows: You arrive at the site in a 4-wheel drive and large trailer on a misty dawn (sometimes a remote field some distance out of town) and start unpacking the basket and envelope, whilst the pilots wander around, throwing tufts of grass into the air in an unscientific attempt to assess ground-wind direction. A handful of punters and their wives/husbands stand around nervously, as the vast envelope is spread flat on the grass. If the basket (which creaks and groans unnervingly) is a double-decker, there can be quite a lot of punters hanging around.

The pilot makes the final decision to fly, and the envelope starts to be inflated with a noisy, petrol-driven fan operated by him from within the side of the basket, which is now fixed to the mouth of the balloon by steel rods and cables, to which the burner array has also been attached. In the early days, the basket and burners were attached by cables alone, but after the heavy burners landed on passenger's heads following heavy landings, the system was re-designed to be rigid.

The envelope wafts and billows in slow-motion, and you begin to get an idea of how vast it really is. The fan is switched off and dragged away, then the pilot climbs into to the horizontal basket and fires up the main burners, whilst the ground-crew hold the mouth of the envelope open, trying not to get torched by the eight-foot column of flame which is shooting from the coiled burner with a deafening roar. The balloon rapidly inflates, and the pilot adjusts his position in accordance to the basket, which rights itself as the balloon rises to an upright position, blocking out the sky above you. The burners are turned off, and the silence is shocking as the envelope slowly waves from one side to the other, like a bouncy castle the size of a large office block. Ground crew have assumed the 'hands on' position, which is standing next to the basket, grasping the thick band of woven willow around it's upper edge. They will maintain that position whilst the punters climb into the basket, and will only let go on the command of 'hands off', whilst the pilot does some buoyancy tests with a few more blasts of the burner, to determine when the whole thing is ready to leave the ground. All gas cylinders are given a final shake, to make sure there is gas actually in them, and the pilot may have a final word with the ground crew about wind-direction, etc, before a sustained burn which begins to make hanging onto the basket a bit of an effort. An inflated balloon with passengers has an actual weight of around five tons, and dragging it as a frictionless mass is surprisingly difficult.

Then the pilot gives the command of 'hands away', and it is extremely important to obey that command, otherwise you may find yourself going up on the outside, each second taking you further away from the ground by many feet. If there is a tether, the pilot pulls the quick-release, and the ground crew try to avoid the falling metal link attached to the end of it, before packing all the gear that has not gone up into the back of the trailer. How quickly this has to be done depends on the wind speed on the day, as it is desirable (but almost never possible) to keep the balloon in sight at all times, and it is usually about a mile away by the time you are ready to go after it.

I once carried out a training-flight launch on an extremely windy day - too windy for paying passengers - from a playing field on the top of a high hill. The balloon was tethered to the bumper of my Land Rover, and was as taught as a bow-string before the pilot released it. It shot down towards me like a catapult, and I ran around like a maniac, stuffing all the gear into the vehicle as the balloon shot away over the valley at about 40 miles per hour. I jumped into the Landy, and began racing through town and out the other side, having correctly guessed the area it was heading for the last time I saw it. About five miles away from the launch, I got visual contact with it again, and managed to position myself underneath it in just the area I thought it would land. It dropped about 500 feet, and - to my amazement - picked up a wind-shear which took it back in exactly the opposite direction, so I turned around and began racing through town again, desperately trying to catch up. It landed in EXACTLY the same position as it had took off, on the playing field. I might as well have just sat there waiting for it to come back.

So now the basket full of punters is about 2000 feet up, and heading for Devizes. When you are up there, traveling at the same speed as the wind, it is eerily silent until the pilot gives the burners a blast. You cannot hear traffic noise, but the one thing to be heard is the barking of dogs from farm-yards, etc. as they try to chase you away from their territory - either in fear or aggression. The pilot will either take you up high, or skim the trees, depending on how he's feeling at the time. Almost as soon as he's underway, he is also planning the landing, as - in rural England - convenient landing spots are few and far between. Ideally, the landing would be in a stubble-field belonging to a friendly farmer (the maps are covered in large areas marked 'do not land here'), without over-head power-cables, close to an open gate which is next to a large lay-by on a good road about 3/4ths of an hour's flight away. Not much to ask for, you would think. If there is radio, the ground-crew will get a message of a possible approach to such a site, and will position themselves accordingly. Then - if all goes well - the message of 'final approach' will be given and you wait as the balloon descends and brushes the ground softly in a nice, smooth landing. In reality, it's not always like that.

There was one training flight which contained the two pilots, and one punter who was only paying about £50, as it was not ideal conditions. I was the only crew, and the punter's wife was following my Land Rover in her car, ready to take hubby home at the end of the flight. For some reason, both pilots decided not to bother with keeping me informed on the radio, so I had to have my wits about me. I correctly guessed the field that they would land in, so I parked up next to it and got out of the car. I was joined by the wife, and we both leant against the five-bar gate, watching the descent. It was quite windy and the balloon was shifting at quite a speed as it came down. Having begun a final approach to which he was now committed, the pilot noticed some high-voltage power lines at the end of the field, toward which the balloon was heading at speed, so he did the only thing available to him at the time - he 'pulled the top out'.

'Pulling the top out' is - quite simply - tugging on a line which controls a flap on the top of the envelope which releases the hot air, and the amount you open this flap and leave it open, controls the descent of the balloon. In this case, that flap was used in an 'emergency' sort of fashion, and I looked on in horror as the whole outfit plumetted to the ground at a frightening speed. I looked at the wife, expecting her to be distraught with terror, but she was just calmly watching with a smile on her face. The basket hit the ground with such force, that it swung violently back as it bounced, tipping all the maps and instruments out of it and strewing them over the field. It swung back and hit the ground a second time, and I looked through half-open eyes, expecting to see bodies come flying out of it too. After about two more bounces, it finally came to rest, and the deflated canopy flopped limply on the grass as the survivors climbed out and made their way toward us. The husband was as white as a sheet, and visibly shaking. Strangely, he had a smile on his face - maybe it was relief to be alive. He walked up to his wife, and said - "That was great, but you wouldn't have liked it"

On the way home, one pilot said to the other, "I really thought he was going to come out of the basket."

The other said, "I didn't."

"Why not??"

"Because I had my foot on his head."

Happy landings.


  1. where is that image from?
    I've seen that balloon before

  2. It's the Montgolfier balloon from that era - ripped of the net - as usual.