Flight Report: G-CJXD ~ 15th May 2016

I’m sure I should open this with some witty statement about how flying slots are like buses – joking how you wait for one and 3 come along at once – but really, I think it’s more a case that however fast the clouds may scud across the sky on occasions, the weather is fundamentally a slow-moving thing.

I also don’t know why I constantly try to describe the way you can steer a balloon by using the adage “right with height”. Attempting to explain how the winds apparently veer clockwise with altitude in the northern hemisphere, because that never seems to hold true anymore either!

For me, one of the greatest strengths, and weaknesses, of hot air ballooning is the fact you cannot do it on your own. Again, a few hardy souls have disproven that statement as well over the years, strapping bicycles to their baskets for a post flight ride back to the launch site to pick up the retrieve vehicle. But, most of the time you are reliant on at least one other person to help inflate the balloon before following in a car ready to retrieve the balloon upon landing. For some, there is as much, if not more, enjoyment in the ground-based chase – often likened to a motorised version of orienteering – that actually flying, but I have always told my crew that while there is no exact ‘drive-to-fly’ ratio, I will always reward that ground-based help by taking them up in the air as often as I can.

Twenty-four hours after flying with Bradley and Natalie from The Dog House in Frilford Heath I was back there again making good on that promise. Andy Bassett and his daughter Sam have been around balloons for years, helping Woody Woodward when he flew the Variety Club balloon and as well as, crewing for Bumble’s maiden flight from Warborough earlier in the month. I’d struggled to find  any crew tonight so Woody had offered to see if Andy was around. Neither of us wanting to miss the chance to go flying.

Both Andy and Sam were around and willing to crew, and while they usually prefer to stay on the ground – Sam expertly map reading to ensure Andy doesn’t get lost – but knowing we had a spare basket space tonight, it seemed only right to offer it to Sam – something we didn’t need to ask twice.

One of the first things I will usually do after take-off is to climb up to around 1,500 feet fairly quickly. This way I can get an understanding of what changes in both wind speed and direction are present as I climb, and therefore, can mentally plan the flight with actual, rather than forecast, knowledge. Tonight, was no different and climbing up from the launch site revealed that the upper winds backed sharply, with a virtual 90-degree change in  wind direction (going from a Northerly wind to a Westerly). This meant that the lower we flew the more we would head South, towards Marcham, and out over the open Oxfordshire countryside. A direction that would be heading straight towards the restricted airspace at Harwell; making finding somewhere to land harder that it otherwise could be.

Staying high and picking up the Westerly wind would take the flight to the East over Abingdon. We’d travel further in the faster upper winds, but once we’d cleared Abingdon itself the countryside north of Didcot is littered by numerous small villages and connecting roads creating far more sensible options in which to land and easy retrieve. This enforced altitude, while making the flight slightly boring due to the disconnection to the world you develop, makes the flying very simple. Knowing that the flying was a long way from tricky, and wanting to share the experience as much as possible, I offered to let Sam have a go on the burners and truly fly the balloon – and although sadly she declined, I’m still sure one day she’ll learn to fly!

As a thank you for organising the crew, I had said to Woody we’d share the flight ’50/50′. I’d done the inflation and take-off so, after 30-minutes flying, it was only fair he took over the rest of the flight and landing. We’d been talking for a while about potential landing sites, local knowledge of the land teamed with the knowledge of the surface winds gained after take-off had us in agreement; the Culham Motocross scramble track was the most suitable place up ahead. Balloons have regularly tethered and landed there – in fact, I’d landed there when I flew with the Hedgehoppers 4 years previously –  and the dirt outline of the bike track easily visible from the air marking the target.

The key to making it would be when to descend after we’d crossed Abingdon. Woody knew that if he left it too late, by the time the wind veered round, we’d be beyond the scramble track and would slide by the far end, missing the chance to land and cursing all the way. Equally, drop too early and we’d track down the near side instead, requiring a climb to altitude again to pick up the required direction but creating the catch-22 scenario of having the winds to take you over your desired landing site, but being 1000 feet above it as a result, and thus, unable to land!

What is required is a ‘push and pull’ approach, reacting quickly to the subtle variations in the winds that arrive as you come descend. You pick the point on the ground you where you want the basket to touch down and fly to it. Popping up and down as needed to fly the line and make the landing. It’s the true skill of a balloon pilot in my view. In linear lines, balloons are crude and easy aircraft to fly, but when you have to truly ‘ride the winds’, they present a challenge that is mentally testing and impossible to teach – experience marrying to talent to create a final product that visually belittles the piloting required.

Woody made the approach and landing look easy – dropping gently to the ground exactly where planned – and as we awaited Andy to arrive with the retrieve after a wonderfully social flight across Abingdon, Woody’s skill was proven first hand. Another (more experienced pilot) attempted the same landing and as we packed away Bumble, we watched him sail wide of the mark!


Posted on by 5WC in Bumble, Hot Air Ballooning First Edition

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