Flight Report: G-ISOB ~ 24th May 2017

After the Beat Hopper – G-ISOB – was launched at Norwich Cathedral I have been trying to come up with somewhere special to take off from for its maiden flight. It seemed somehow wrong to simply fly from my local recreation ground, or the field behind the pub, that I use every time I fly locally. Virgin Balloon Flights fly locally from Henley and their pilot, Mark Shemilt, now owns and flies my old cloudhopper – G-CEGG. I also knew that a couple of supporters of Beat lived in Henley and so, a couple of emails later, I’d arranged to fly alongside Mark, from a launch site right next to the river, my old and new hoppers together. It seemed like a fitting start to life for Beat.

As ballooning is a social sport, even if cloudhoppers aren’t, we’d invited another local hopper pilot to join us. The launch site – The Upper Thames Rowing Club – is literally just upriver from the Leander Club, site of the Royal Regatta, and on the grass next to the banks themselves we set about inflating the balloons. As this was the first time Beat would ever free fly, I took a little bit longer than usual on the preflight checks to make sure everything was correct and present – to the slight annoyance of the others who ended up waiting for me to be ready – but after a handful of photographs the three balloons were ready for a syncronised take-off. Although, annoyingly, my crew gave me a gentle push as I took to the skies and I launched swinging happily back and forth like a child on a swing!

Mark was leading the way, and as I climbed he dropped back low and as we flew towards the Leander Club and the forthcoming Regatta rowing course, I was met with the surreal sight of my old balloon bobbing around the sky in front of me. It really is strange to see a balloon you’ve flown so much in the air alongside you because, when flying, you don’t appreciate it, the colours, the pattern and design. It’s just the bag of fabric above your head. But alongside it, you see it as others do, and it’s strange, your mind taking a few minutes to compute this new relationship to the balloon.

A pre-flight discussion between the pilots had suggested that a rough plan would be to take-off, fly over Henley and then drop it onto a grass airstrip near Harpsden – before retiring to the local pub. The wind wasn’t providing much steerage with height tonight, you simply increased in speed, and having stayed high as we flew over Henley, overtaking Mark and now being the lead balloon, I reached the airfield as planned. The problem was: I’d only been flying around 10 minutes. Both Mark and Kevin stayed lower, and thus slower, landing at the airfield as planned but accepting short flights as a consequence. I felt that for the maiden flight of the balloon, a quick “up and down” hop wasn’t what I wanted. I was enjoying the flight and being in the air and so, elected to fly on.

Having decided to carry on, I flew the length of the airstrip only a few feet off the ground, marvelling at how controllable and responsive the balloon was. Beat is bigger than my previous hopper, and quite a bit lighter too, which combined together to make a real racing car of a balloon. Lots of excess lift and little weight meaning not much heat was required to persuade the balloon to change direction. A livery yard at the end of the airstrip meant I needed to climb up again to avoid spooking any horses but after I was safely clear of them I could drop the balloon low again to enjoy the surreal experience of sitting of a chair as you slide across the open countryside a few feet in the air.

As I approached Shiplake I lined up an approach onto a school sports field, but the sadly I needed to kick to right in my track to make the landing and it never materialised, instead I crossed straight over the school buildings, agonisingly close. I decided to climb back up and see what options lay ahead of me. I was conscious now that Reading was approaching and that I would need to land before it. The area between Shiplake and Sonning proved to be a mixture of growing crop, unsuitable for landing and watermeadows right next to the right, with very limited access and potentially risking saturated ground that would soak the balloon – not the best end to the first flight.

I, therefore, made the decision to fly on to Sonning.

Dropping down over the Coppa Club bar, it was obvious that there were a number of school sports fields littering the area just South, but also divided by a lot of trees – visually stunning, but problematic from a landing point of view. Dropping the balloon back to ‘tree-top height’ the wind speeds on the surface were slower than earlier but still quick, and with the visually cramped conditions, landing the balloon, for the first time ever, took on a bit of extra pressure. I discounted the first couple of sports fields and decided to land on the cricket pitch right by the main drive. From my vantage point, it looked to a lot less cramped and, if anything went wrong with the approach, a second set of sports pitches lay beyond it as a potential back up.

With my heart pounding in my chest, I put my trust in the balloon and the wind direction and made an approach, a large bank of trees to my right ready to gobble me up, if I got a change in direction in those last few feet. Thankfully, the wind stayed true and in fact, I was able to land just outside the boundary rope (of the cricket pitch), perfectly deflating the balloon in the space before the pavilion that looked almost design for it.

With the flight over and the crew not too far away I set about packing away. I was on cloud nice, the balloon flew brilliantly and may dream of the perfect maiden flight had come to fruition.


Posted on by 5WC in Beat, Hot Air Ballooning Updated On: 29th September 2019

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