Miranda the Explorer flies in our hot air balloon

The thought of entertaining one hundred young kids for the afternoon would turn most of us Dad’s cold. It would require the standard excuse off “Sorry luv I have work commitments that day”.

But my job is flying passengers on hot air balloon rides. So that particular get out clause was not available when Crispin from The Southwater Junior Academy got in contact. Usually these requests come in for summer fetes when the air is hot and the thermals are rising. In these conditions flying a hot air balloon is savage. OK to fly a branded balloon for a company when just the pilot gets thrashed around but way too dangerous to carry someone else’s child on board.

However Crispin’s request was for a November tether. At this time of year with cold air inversions it is possible to fly a hot air balloon all day. You just can’t land and retrieve a big hot air rides balloon because the fields are too slippery and boggy with mud to get the vehicle and trailer on and off. So we fly our small four man hot air balloons usually just for fun. It’s our wind down time before the Christmas gifts rush.

Crispin told us that the kids have been studying James Mayhew’s Miranda the Explorer. Published by Orion Books their website says Miranda wins a balloon ride. But the rope snaps and away she goes, over seas, mountains, and deserts. She touches down at the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids, flies over the Great Wall of China, visits Japan and almost falls into a river full of crocodiles in Australia.

Now there is a girl after my own heart. Flying India and Australia in the winter are two trips I have yet to do.

As the kids climb into the basket they have obviously been listening in class. Where is the Parachute Valve they ask so I show them but hurriedly grab the red for danger rope attached to it incase they want to experiment. Most call out “I can see my house” so I guess that’s something Miranda says in the book although some of them actually can.

I have to take my hat off to The Southwater Junior Academy’s Headmaster for making his pupils classes real. And making the kids associated dreams come true. If their parents and neighbors want to do likewise they only have to travel a short distance away from the local Gatwick Airports Controlled Airspace to our hot air balloon rides launch site at Wisborough Green. See www.southdownsballooning.co.uk

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South Downs Christmas Hamper

Looking for a special Christmas gift? We can offer you the biggest Christmas hamper you have ever seen. OK it’s not one you extract goodies from. It is one you get in and fly on our hot air balloon rides over the South Downs.

There is no Christmas pudding but the pilots a bit of a fruit cake. How would he be otherwise having spent sixteen years launching into the air not knowing which way the wind will take him or where he is going to make his landing. An unusual but exiting occupation.

No Stilton in the basket but the jokes are pretty cheesy. “You are welcome to make a last phone call to family and friends but then please switch off your mobiles before getting into the basket”. It’s the word “last” that people react to. A bit unfair as most passengers are apprehensive about their forthcoming hot air balloon flight. But laughter helps to calm the nerves. Switching off the mobile is a legal thing. Modern ones have flight mode.

Chutneys, pickles and other preservatives may be missing. But the memories of the view’s, peace, tranquillity and sheer elation of floating through the sky will be preserved for life on the mind of anyone that dares to travel on hot air balloon flights.

A nice bottle of Port is no where to be seen but everyone gets a glass of Champagne at the end of their balloon ride. And the bottle of spirit goes to the farmer.

Hot air balloon rides are on most peoples “bucket list”. A present they would love to receive and at our Christmas offer price of £85 for weekday morning hot air balloon flights are no more expensive than a good quality Christmas hamper.

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Charitable hot air balloon rides


In early September each year the grounds man of Wisborough Greens village cricket pitch averts his eyes and crosses his fingers as numerous four wheel drive vehicles with trailers attached attack his turf. The combined members of Mid Hants Balloon Club and Surrey and Sussex Balloon Group are preparing their crafts to raise money for Shooting Star CHASE. This charity supporting local children hospices caring for families with a child or teenager with a life-limiting condition.

A noble cause but not enough to gather so many balloons in one place. The catalyst I would suggest is the event organiser Brian Smith. Any of you that have travelled in a 747 owned by British Airways have probably been flown by a pilot checked out by Brian. And luckily for us balloonists he brought his unique training ability to the sport of hot air ballooning. “Try just relaxing a bit ” he said after I made a complete pigs ear of a final approach “and when you are ready tell me which field you are going for”. This on a final check flight to gain my private license was not what I expected. A second chance.

There are many more stories. All of his humorous and usually told in the Pub over a pint or two. But the fact that he was a member of the seven strong operations team behind the Breightling Orbiter successful circumnavigation of the globe shows his not just a comedian.

Now I am running South Downs ballooning it is payback time. That’s why we took two of our passengers and five charity donators for a hot air balloon ride from Brians field north to friendly Pallinghurst Farm. Many teams as mentioned took off amongst the crowds on the village green. You can see both launch sites in these pictures. And get a feeling for what it is like to fly in a balloon festival. We suggest you check it out next year. If you want to join in give us a call.

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English Monsoon

Launching Newbury Show 2005

Lunching nfrom the Newbury Show Arena in 2005

Flying away from Newbury 2005

You can see what the weather was like in September 2005

Weather affects our balloon rides operation more than most businesses. So after six weeks of storms you would expect us to be ringing our hands and making sacrifices to the sun gods. LOL.

Don’t you remember when we were young the skies were bluer, the grass greener and summers were longer?

As an adult you may remember Cliff Richard singing in the rain at Wimbledon on 3rd July 1996. That terrible storm over Boscastle Cornwall 16th August 2004. The Thames flooding Oxford 25th July 2007. And the fact that every Barbeque party you ever tried to organise was washed out.

Fact is British so called summer time is actually our Monsoon Season. Can’t be you say because the word monsoon conjures up documentary images of weeks off torrential rain. But June, July August is just that. In between the rain it is still the only time of year when we Brit’s can get a suntan. That makes it our summer.

So why are we still laughing. Well we are not that ecstatic. LOL is just a txt expression my kids taught me. But our balloon rides rule still stands strong that is in any one year we will get 100 balloon rides away. It’s just impossible to say when those flights will happen.

Don’t get me wrong because I am a believer. Global warming is happening but its effect thus far on the UK is to generate more unstable weather. That is both the storms and droughts are more intense. But the dry, warm weather now arrives earlier (remember March 2012) and continues into October.

In past decades the Newbury Show during the first weekend of September was the end of the commercial “Balloon Circus” season. That is the advertising balloons flown through the summer “Fiesta” circuit. We can remember floating out of the Newbury arena underneath grey clouds and in abysmal visibility. See photo’s above of 18/09/2005.

Last year we were still flying customers on hot air balloon rides in the first week of October.

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Winter flying in the Alps

Launching from Mauterndorf

 

Once you have learnt to ride a bike it’s easy. But when you have been off one for a while you might start out with an unintended wobble. The same is true for any hand/sight/balance activity including ballooning.

 As a result the Civil Aviation Authority

climbing to height

(CAA) introduced some thing called “currency” for all pilots. The regulations for Commercial Balloon Pilots say that you must have flown a minimum of three flights in the last ninety days. 

Now in England with our cold, windy and wet winters it can be a challenge to stay current. Plus if you do fly the field that you

View from 10,000 feet

land in is going to be wet and the chances of your retrieve vehicle getting through the muddy tracks are slim. It’s not that we are wimps. Our envelopes will grow mildew within two days if we don’t get them dry. 

In the Alps the ground is frozen solid and covered in snow. So commercial pilots are

View after two hours in the air

forced to travel to France, Austria, Switzerland or Italy to stay current. It’s a hard job but someone has to do it.

 Off course there are some lumpy bits of granite to deal with. And given the height of those mountains we might have to climb to 12,000 feet where it’s cold and difficult to breath. But with the proliferation of extreme excursions like climbing Everest

After three hours open fields

it’s easy to hire oxygen. Boat Chandlers can provide the emergency flares. Army surplus provides the emergency rations and now you’re all setup to be an Alpine pilot.

Actually your not. Understanding what the weather reports mean in real life and especially how the various layers of winds will affect a balloon is better left to

Descending into the valley

someone with more experience than a Brit. The solution is to attend one or more of the many balloon festivals that are run in the Alp’s during the first part of each year.

The temptation to use too many superlatives to describe the resultant flights is difficult to resist. As pictures paint a thousand words I suggest you look at the attached photographs instead.

On the landing run. Note retrieve at edge of field

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Thailand International balloon festival

Kids as everywhere look on as their parents do the work
Fisherman on flooded lake
Welcome large field on fast flight

While we can only see a few meters skywards in freezing fog our colleagues are basking in Thailand’s clear sunny heat. Early December is the traditional slot in the hot air ballooning calendar for their international meet see www.thailandadventuresports.com

 Most major ballooning nations are represented including America, Australia and the other Europeans but the largest contingent are invariably from the UK. Probably because the balloonist in the organizing team is expectorate English.

 I was too busy with http://www.southdownsballooning.co.uk to go. But did absorb the delights of this event in 2007. Amazingly friendly crowds and apparently open people.

 Hard to describe how comfortable you can feel in Thailand. Guess from the affinity of the gap year kids with this place I may be the last to know. Perhaps some examples will help:

 Finished our first balloon ride in what looked like a dry paddy field. Within minutes the whole village has turned out. Don’t know much about rice and there are green shoots sprouting out from the mounds. Using what probably appeared to them to be hilarious sign language I ask if we have caused damage to their food. Through the same medium they replied “we are not cows. We don’t eat grass”.

 Fast evening balloon flight into required, welcoming open fields. The other pilots recognize the opportunity and follow us in. Farmer and his family cooking over their open fire are enthralled by the colours, sounds and commotion. All moon shaped smiles and glittering eyes until one over enthusiastic retrieve driver does not see a flimsy fence and drive straight through it tearing up half the compound. Suddenly the poor guy’s world appears to collapse around him. A quick thinking balloon pilot named Mark hands over what to us is a couple of quid and again we are treated to angelic smiles.

 A morning flight with a guest Banker from Bangkok over the flooded edge of the lake. I wanted to know what fish the locals were catching so asked “what are they fishing for”. He replied in far better English “for subsistence”.

 People, foliage and food I will take a hot air balloon back there some day, probably soon.

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My hot air ballooning season

So that’s it. First of November and the balloon rides season is over. 

It has been a good year. By the late spring I was flying Kent covering for local pilot Celia who had yet to learn that balloon pilots cannot take holidays. Because Murphy’s Law states that when you do so the sun will shine, the winds will be light and who ever is covering your patch will earn loads of dosh. She did learn and that was the end of my love affair with the beautiful Kent Weald.

On to summer and a trip to York. First time there which was great but gee the countryside is flat. After last season in Wales and the Derbyshire Dales I guess everything looks that way. Except for the Lake District but I never got there. It was windy and wet so flights called off. Having driven through there numerous times over the years isn’t it always that way?

Spring turns to summer and I am in Cambridgeshire. Flat land again but the second cut of hay is in and there are grass fields to land on. Then the winter barley feels the edge of the combine harvesters blade followed by the now golden wheat. Ballooning heaven. But hot air balloon pilots don’t relax too much because experience says if we do, when its time to land all the cut fields are behind us.

The farmers are still cutting crops and the harvest festival is some time away when Cambridgeshire is left to a good colleague and I am moved to Essex. Very willing to do so because I am flying my old mate Nigel’s Horizon 275,000 cu ft balloon (12 passengers). Called Horizon because that was the name of the Hampshire based company he owned before he sold out to my employer. Old mate because he taught me how to fly.

Chipping Ongar, Epping Forest Chelmsford and all it’s great to see them from on high. As a young teenager I used to ride out at weekends on my push bike through this countryside. And later, on a motorbike, I went a courting.

That was my summer. Flying rides balloons down the east side of England. I appear to have flown full circle. In 2007 I was in Dorset and the West Country initially doing charter flights with my own balloons. A year later and it’s the Midlands from Northampton through the Heart of England to Kettering. Great countryside but its important to avoid Birmingham’s air space. As already said Wales and Derbyshire last year followed by the East side of England this summer.

Not planned but means I have spent four years flying gradually clockwise around this land. Seems natural to complete the full circle and come back to my home of the last 30 years, Hampshire. And as flat land is boring fly the South Downs. See http://www.southdownsballooning.co.uk

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