Flight Reports: Royal County Of Berkshire Show 2015

Newbury Show 2015 - Header

The Royal County of Berkshire Show, or Newbury Show as it was previously known (and still is locally), always takes place on the third full weekend of September and for me, represents the culmination of the hot air ballooning calendar. It’s not a true “end of season” but in my mind commercial ballooning in the UK starts with the London Marathon in April and ends at Newbury in September. Over the years there have been mass launches of 20-30 balloons, and during the hey-day of the 1990s bore witness to flying strawberries, cheeses and liquorice allsorts, to keep with the agriculture theme!

The hot air balloon display at the Show has been organised by my family for many, many years, in fact, my father has been “in charge” for so long now that I wouldn’t even like to hazard a guess to the exact length. Sadly though, with the decline in commercial ballooning over the past decade, as well as, a general malaise to ballooning in the area, the event has got smaller and smaller and now there are usually only 15-20 balloons registering and 10-15 actually flying from the launches. It’s still just enough to put on a spectacle for the public, but it isn’t as impressive as it once was.

Flying takes place each morning from a car park just north of the Showground, while evening flights close the main arena programme. Sadly, even though the UK appears to be getting more and more Indian summers with prolonged good weather, the show hasn’t managed to secure any and flying has been seriously limited over the last few years. The forecast, however, in the run up to the event looked stunning. With 48 hours to go we were being told of sunshine and light winds all weekend and to expect a complete “4-from-4” event (where all 4 flying slots available would be flown).

Saturday 19th September

Nut what do weather forecaster’s know though? Saturday morning dawned with absolutely zero wind, and absolutely zero visibility. It was foggy. It was a true “pea souper”. Driving to the first briefing it was obvious that even though the winds were fine, the fact you couldn’t see anything meant that the weekend would get off to a non-flying start. Even worse, the lack of wind meant that there was no chance the fog would disperse quickly because there was nothing to move it along. It would only clear when the sun burnt it off and that would take a while. High Pressure was dominating the UK though, and thus, keeping things stable – the evening flight was almost guaranteed!

Saturday PM - Flight Track - Newbury Show 2015

There is always a bit of friction between the balloons and the show organisers over timings. They like the balloons to fly last, to “close the show” which is fine, except when the show runs late. This year, a few unfortunate delays meant we were late in the ring, and while still OK to fly, time was tight to get a decent flight. As a result, the show we put on for the public resembled “speed ballooning”. Flying my hopper, I was in, rigged and inflated in mere minutes. Gone was the leisurely preparations of a normal flight and in came efficiently and trimming. There was no GoPro footage because I didn’t have time to rig the camera. Prepping maps, altimeters and GPS? All done in the car park earlier.

The planned flight was simple – take off, fly to the car park, land. No messing around. I was the third balloon airborne, beaten by the BT balloon and Richard Penney in Ultramagic’s Friendship Balloon. As predicted I left the main ring and headed to the North West and straight at the planned car park. The only thing was, I had managed to get in the air so quickly I had more time than I expected and when I reached the car park part of me didn’t want to land. It seemed too soon, even if the sun was beginning to ponder the idea of setting. There is, however, more than one car park and so I decided to fly over the first, hop the A34 and drop into the second. The only thing was, an itch once scratched begs for more, and as I crossed the A34 I realised I was on course for Chieveley recreation ground. I could fly on, keep my track, make the playing fields and have an even longer flight.

Part of learning to fly is learning about “Human Performance and Limitations”, and one subject area is on “target fixation”, which is when you become so blinkered to a task that you miss the obvious around you until it’s too late. While I was desperate to fly on, my track looking certain, a sixth sense made me double check. The balloons nearer the ground were picking up a more westerly wind and it occurred to me that whilst the wind at 1000ft was heading to the playing fields, the surface winds weren’t and that if I flew on, when I descended to land, I’d actually miss my target. I sat there wanting to fly on, but the voice in my head telling me not to pass up the perfect car park. That I’d look foolish if I flew on and got in to trouble with light/landing sites because I misread the winds to quote it exactly. So I landed.

Hopper Parking Steward - Newbury Show 2015

I dropped into the car, chatted to a few members of the public returning to the cars – making the old, old joke about insurance claims for “damage by balloon” should I accidently hit one (I of course didn’t), before expertly landing on the road between the cars – only for a steward to point out I was now blocking the route out!

In the end I managed to drag the flight out to 45minutes which for a last minute “car park hop” was far more than I expected when I took off. The show absolutely loved the sight of the balloons, drifting virtually stationary away from the showground and the numerous balloons who landed in the car park did a brilliant job talking to the public and creating brilliant PR for local ballooning. The day may have started disappointingly, but ended in stunning style.

Sunday 20th September

High pressure was still stubbornly controlling the weather and with such light winds and stable air, fog was always going to be on the cards. So it didn’t come as any surprise when I got up, opened the curtains and saw a sea of whiteness blinding my view. Flying called off and back to bed.

Out of all the slots on offer, the Sunday night was always the one doubt I had. The forecast for Monday was poor – wet and windy – so, I was expecting the first signs of it breaking down to be visible. And sadly, they were. If anything the weather was breaking down faster than expected. The forecast was giving a quick but flyable slot which should have seen us heading to the North East. Instead, the wind had veered to much more of an Easterly and become very gusty. And that’s ignoring the upper winds that were steaming along as well. If the gustiness died out to leave a steady but quick slot we’d fly, but it was touch and go. I expected to fly though.

Thankfully, the main ring was on time and we were in much, much earlier than the previous night and 10 balloons set about rigging and pondering. The wind would seem OK and then it would blow through, and not stop. I was itching to fly but every time I thought about inflating a huge gust would rustle the only trees on site with such effect that I’d stop and question my sanity. In the end a decision was made to try and inflate the BT balloon. Essentially the biggest balloon with the most experienced pilot. If they could inflate safely we’d all try, if they couldn’t we’d pack up and go home.

Newbury Weekly News - Newbury Show 2015

It all started well, the BT balloon slowly filling with air, and slowly starting to take shape. And then a gust hit. Balloon went left, basket went right, lots of shouting and all thoughts of flying were abandoned. It was a perfect example to the crowds watching as to why, when it’s windy, balloons cannot fly – even if the sun is shining – but it still left a slightly disappointing taste in my mouth, having been in the ring, with everything ready and the adrenaline flowing, I wanted to fly, even if in my heart I knew it wasn’t safe.

From an organisational point of view the balloons involvement in the 2015 Show was a great success. We had arguably one of the most visual and impressive launches ever on the Saturday night and while Sunday finished limply, it did show ballooning to the public and didn’t leave an empty arena and a melancholic Tannoy announcement. But from my point of view as a pilot, I came into the weekend expecting to fly at least three of the four slots and ended up going home with one.

Here’s to the 2016 event, I just hope the weather, finally, arrives flyable.

Posted on by 5WC in G-CEGG, Hot Air Ballooning First Edition

Comments are closed.