Flight Report: G-CJXD ~ 26th May 2016

As mentioned in the report of my previous flight, Woody Woodward used to fly the Variety Club hot air balloon. Sadly, when it reached the end of it’s flying life, Woody wasn’t in a position to purchase another balloon leaving him grounded. UK law dictates that to act as a pilot in command you are required to complete annual currency – currently 5 flights in 13 months for a private pilot – and without a balloon to fly, Woody risks missing this requirement and lapsing his licence. The result is that I have always tried to ensure that he can get into the sky from time to time in my balloon to make sure this doesn’t happen.

This meant that less than three weeks since Bumble had taken off on its maiden voyage, and for the third time in four flights, I was once again airborne with Woody. Unlike our previous flight, however, where I’d taken off and Woody hand landed, this time Woody was responsible for parting us from the ground and I’d be required to safely reattach us later!

They say that every hot air balloon flight is different. From the obvious changes that arise from flying in another region or country, to simply taking a different track from your usual launch site no two flights are ever the same. The subtle variations in wind direction, how landing sites appear and disappear as crops grow and blossom throughout the year. How the sense of emotion can vary from the awakening burst of energy that greets a morning to the calming sleep of the approaching slumber that stalks an evening; the impossible prediction of what you’ll experience each flight holding the key to the appeal of flying at the mercy of the wind.

All that said, however, no matter what you find once in the air, when you fly over the same countryside time and again, as a pilot, you gain an unspoken local knowledge. Knowledge that dictates a large portion of the flying decisions you make and tonight’s flight highlighted that learning perfectly. Under glorious sunshine and with a cloudless blue skies, the direction was for a flight to the South West – a line from The Dog House at Frilford Heath which would take us parallel to the A338 heading towards Grove.

To begin with, our track played out as forecast, however, as we approached Garford the wind unexpectedly veered clockwise. We lost a lot of the Southerly heading we wanted to take us to Grove, pushing us round further and further to the west. By the time we reached the village of Lyford we were heading out over young growing crops, our options for landing starting to become severely limited. I had taken over flying the balloon from Woody, but he’s flown this area a lot more than me, gaining far more local knowledge, and he stressed the importance of returning to a Southerly based track. Working to his suggestion, I dropped the balloon low hoping to back our track anticlockwise towards the more favourable southerly line. There was one caveat to this seemingly better heading, we had to find a place to land before crossing the railway line north of Grove.

As explained, local knowledge can be an important decision maker when flying. While staying high and heading West would limit our potential landing sites compared to dropping low and heading South, once we’d crossed the railway line we’d be into an area West of Wantage that is concentrated with heavy livestock and livery farming. The result being that the potential risk of disturbing an animal when trying to land unnecessarily high.

Descending towards the surface, we backed round to the South as hoped, but also picked up a lot of unexpected speed. This added a layer of pressure on me, on top of the already impending trainline. Zipping past Denchworth I could see a number of small grass fields up ahead but, in true Hollywood blockbuster fashion, they were literally the last before the train tracks. It was a pressurised landing if ever there was one!

Having to clear a line of trees at the start of the field meant that I couldn’t approach as low as I’d like and, married to the increased wind speed on the surface, would optically make the fields look smaller than they truly are. I knew at the speed we were travelling we would drag on landing, the wind fighting to push the deflating balloon along until friction wins out, so I elected to land positively (or to hit the ground hard in layman’s terms). A mixture of adrenaline and what I shall call ‘quick wind condition rust’ meant I landed with a true positivity. We hit the ground a lot, lot harder than planned, but it ensured the balloon stopped safely in the field. It wasn’t the most dignified end to a flight I had ever had, Woody landed squarely on top of me as the basket tipped over, but even with a slightly bruised ego, local knowledge and knowing when to land, had ensured we were both safely back on the ground and Woody one flight further away from losing his licence.


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

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