Flight Report: G-CJXD ~ 4th June 2016

Having returned Woody Woodward to the ground on our previous flight with slightly more than a gentle bump it seemed only fair to apologise to him with another flight. This time, however, not only was the chocolate box appearance of cloudless skies and a warming summer sun replaced by a cold, grey, almost depressive monotony, but Woody declared he wanted to land the balloon himself!

Previously, I’d explained how local knowledge can play a vital role in decision making when flying and tonight proved how, sometimes, all the local knowledge in the world can count for nothing. If the winds aren’t there, there is nothing you can do.

Once again we’d taken off from The Dog House at Frilford Heath, and just as before we were tracking out to the South West. This time, however, we had no useable steerage. As we climbed we just continued, regimentally, in one singular direction. Thoughts of staying low to go left, climbing high to move right nothing but an unfulfilled dream. We were heading into the open countryside and there was nothing we could do but accept the winds of fate and enjoy the challenges that lay ahead.

Flying with no steerage, while seemingly problematical, can also be very enjoyable. Often, when you have large variations in wind direction, flying can actually become stagnated. You can be forced to stay at specific heights, holding specific winds, for extended periods of time as future decisions lay at the mercy of prior actions. When that requirement is taken away you can happily ‘bounce up and down’ safe in the knowledge that you won’t disturb the best laid plans of mice and men. You can drop low to hop hedges and skim inches above miles of open countryside. You can climb high to breathe in the detachment from life that comes with being so far above the world – the ground flattened out into a patchwork of colour below.

We’d been flying for thirty minutes and were actually not very far from the exact position we’d been in previously – a few miles East of Lyford – however, last time we knew we could drop low and head to the safety of Grove to the south, tonight we were picking a straight line between Goosey and Denchworth, much further West. The only forward planning, once again, being land before the railway line. Tonight, the pressure was all Woody’s.

We’d flown over miles of crop with no end in sight. A seemingly endless landscape of darkening, growing, green. However much we wanted to keep the balloon the ‘right side of the tracks’, just like the winds, you must accept the hand you’re dealt. If you can’t land safely before, you have no option but to fly over. The railway line signals the start of livestock country, and this was highlighted perfectly by a sudden change in our environment; previously, the last fields before the railway had been empty grass, tonight that grass contained sheep. Already climbing to ensure a safe height over the railway, we now added a few more feet to ensure we didn’t disturb the animals either. This extra altitude proved beneficial though. Our lofted position showed us that not far beyond the tracks, and directly on our heading, was a large ploughed but prepared field – potentially planted with a late spring crop that was yet to poke its head through the soil. More importantly, though, it was next to a private road and had a grass strip – most likely an environmental buffer strip – around the far edge. It was the sensible landing site.

At the speed we were going there would be no problem keeping the balloon inflated upon landing. Staying ‘upright’ as balloonists say meant we could gently touch down on the plough before ‘walking’ the balloon over to the grass for deflation. Ensuring minimal impact on the plough and an easy retrieve for the crew. Woody executed the landing perfectly – a far cry from the harshness of my previous example – and with a little effort we walked the balloon to the grass for a perfect and safe end to the flight.

A few years ago, I suffered very badly with pre-flight anxiety regarding the ever-decreasing lack of safe and sensible landing sites. Changes in field use and crop growing practices suffocating the options we relied on for so many years. The thought of being in the air, struggling to find a field, would leave me a nervous wreck and cancelling flights. It was only through sympathetic encouragement from Woody that I finally got, somehow, past it mentally and back in the air. He remind me that no matter where you fly there is always somewhere waiting to welcome you safely back – and tonight proved his point perfectly.

FLIGHT TRACK

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

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