Flight Report: G-CJXD ~ 2nd April 2017

When my family ran a small ‘rides’ company, offering flights to members of the public in Rainbow Blue – the 4-person balloon that was the first to carry the family colour scheme, we used to say there were two types of passenger. The first would book their flight long before they wished to fly, only to be delayed from taking to the skies for months on end as attempt after attempt was curtailed by wind, rain and rubbish weather. The second would ring up at the last-minute, wishing to step almost straight into the basket, and usually, the weather would oblige. It never seemed fair that the last-minute chancers were somehow always luckier with the weather than those who had waited patiently.

Please don’t think, however, that I’m suggesting either type of passenger has more worth than the other, or that one was in some way nicer. It was just that, noticeably, the last minute “I don’t suppose…” seemed to always get into the air first. I’d even found it when I flew some school friends. Chris Aram had rung up the day before and was flying the next morning. Jo Tucker arranged to fly as a birthday present, weeks in advance, and ended up waiting months to fly, long after blowing out the candles.

There is a reason I’m going on about spontaneity versus planning though. The wet winter has dragged on and on, I haven’t free flown since the Royal County of Berkshire Show last September, but the excitement of tethering the Beat balloon at Norwich Cathedral has really got me itching to get back in the air and get 2017 “underway”. High pressure is now dominating the UK, finally bringing some flyable weather, but with the ground so soft and muddy, I’m reluctant to risk Beat to the farmer’s fields of Oxfordshire just yet. So, for the moment, it’s back to the bigger balloon – Bumble – and flying with friends.

During my time at University, I’d met Tom and had always said I’d happily fly him. Knowing I’d have to fit it around terms times, study, 2-for-1 happy hour at the Student Union and the winter weather we’ve just had, I’d never actually got further than the verbal offer. With thoughts now back to flying, I sent Tom a message to see when it was free. His reply – Sunday! And of course, as is always the way, Sunday just happened to be flyable!

It really was the idyllic night to go flying. There wasn’t a breath of wind and the blue spring sky was full of woolly cumulus clouds that seemed to simply hang under an early bright sun.  With such little wind – both on the surface and at altitude – we wouldn’t be travelling far but what movement there was, was forecast to head to the East. Dictating, once again, that we’d be flying from The Dog House at Frilford Heath.

There were two other balloons joining us in the sky. John Rose – who runs the Oxford Balloon Company – and Bradley Lewis. John took off first and, with so little wind, simply loitered in the sky above me. Delaying my take-off before eventually drifting clear, allowing me to start my flight with Bradley following us both into the air a few minutes later. All 3 balloons drifted, as expected, away from The Dog House and East towards Abingdon airfield but the conditions were bizarre. You could never escape the constant Easterly flow, but within it, there were eddies and currents that sent us meandering around the sky in an almost drunken appearance.

This unpredictability in the wind meant I had to really concentrate on the positioning of the balloons around me. As we approached the edge of the airfield, John and myself were around the same altitude and, I felt, were beginning to drift together. I radioed John and said I’d climb to avoid any issue and this proved worthwhile, as while climbing, my heading continued to drift, bringing me to a halt directly above his balloon. Staring down at the top of John’s envelope I had stopped dead in the air, thankfully John in the natural Easterly flow, taking him over the airfield, and once he was safely clear from under me, I started to descend back to surface. Annoyingly, though, as I got lower the drunken waltz of our two balloons restarted and John drifted back towards me, forcing me to abandon my descent and climb again.

Bradley and John had seen me stop dead when I’d climbed high and decided, rightly, that it wasn’t safe to attempt to overfly Abingdon. You’d never clear the town before sunset with so little speed and, as a result, they both decided to land on the airfield. I didn’t have that luxury, however. Climbing high to avoid John, only to end up stuck above him ever since, had removed my chance. I’d drifted too far, too high and run out of room. I was now forced to fly on and would, therefore, need to find some wind speed. Climbing higher and higher, however, just confirmed my fear that it didn’t exist. The extra altitude also revealed that I really didn’t want to stay high or attempt to fly on, for too long. After the few patches of grass bordering the airfield, that would take some luck to reach anyway, there was nothing else that looked even potentially suitable for landing nearby.

Descending back to the surface, I was now over the barracks and buildings on the edge of the airfield. The meandering winds that had plagued the flight so far continued and the lower I got, the more I turned, unexpectedly, to the South. This actually wasn’t a bad track to find and I dropped lower and lower, secretly hoping I may veer even further ‘round and back onto the airfield, allowing me to land. Pushing my height as low as I felt I could over the buildings, my track, suddenly, lost its meandering drift and went stubbornly back to the dominant Eastern flow. With all thoughts of landing on the airfield gone, the peaceful quiet that comes with flying in a balloon was abruptly broken by an enquiry, in a very Irish brogue, as to whether “I was lost?”. Unnoticed until now, the residents of the barracks below were out, sitting on a sofa, drinking beer and watching me drift slowly by!

With my thoughts now back on finding somewhere to land, I realised that the small Southern drift had kicked in my position just enough to mean a rugby pitch next to the airfield was now a serious potential option. It’d need fully committed flying but, if I went very high, the Easterly drift would take me to it and I could then drop like a stone back to the surface in time to make the landing. The speed of descent hopefully negating any impact the meandering currents of air may cause but I couldn’t afford to mess it up.

With the world looking very small beneath us, and the adrenaline pumping through me, I waited and waited for my moment. The nervous anticipation building in the quiet before the storm. And then I went. I let the balloon accelerate, faster and faster, the ground getting closer and closer, only trickling heat into the balloon to keep it warm, ready to apply the brakes. Relief flooded me as I’d timed it right, we drove straight towards the centre of the rugby, slowing the descent as the surface bore up to meet us welcomingly back, touching down with only a small, gentle skip.

Safely back on the ground, I kept the balloon inflated as we awaited the crew, much to the delight of the surrounding houses who’d come out to watch. After the long winter layoff, it was great to get back into the sky and having to work so hard to make the landing, any winter rust had been shaken off. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel as draining as I’d expected after such a slow flight and having had to work so hard at the end. It was just great to be with friends again, doing what I love. So here’s to the start of a summer of fun and memories!

FLIGHT TRACK

Photographs © Chris Dobson, Keith Harbor & Tom Wise 2017

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

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