The 15th “Fly Trap” : G-CEGG Flight Report

G-CEGG - 9th July 2015 - Flight Track

People often joke about how a hot air balloon, especially when landing, appears “out of control”. Talk often turns to how landing in a balloon is essentially, crashing and how it is nothing more than a planned accident. That isn’t true, however, because whilst balloons travel with the wind, going where it blows, you can use the subtle variations in direction at different heights to steer a balloon’s general track (see my previous flight report for an example of extreme change in wind direction at varying altitudes) and of course, we have millimetre control over the height, and rates of ascent and descent of the balloon throughout.

All this means, that we can decide how and when we chose to land. the choice of site thought out and planned long before we ever touchdown. Is there livestock around? Is it arable crop? Where is the nearest road? How easy is vehicle access for retrieval? All questions answered before we arrive back on terra firma ensuring that everything should be simple, safe and with the minimum of disruption for the landowner. The perfect end to the flight.

Occasionally things we go wrong and the best laid plans prove false. The thoughts of simplicity destroyed once you’ve committed yourself to land and the realities on the ground prove different to those initial views from the air. This was one of those times.

I must confess though it was all my own fault and I hold up my hands to accept the blame. The weather was good. 6-7 knots on the surface, 10kts up stairs and a pretty steady direction all the way up. Looking at the map, the choice was either fly from Abingdon or Hungerford. Both good when heading East, Hungerford back towards Newbury or Abingdon out over the countryside around Benson/Chalgrove. However, there is currently some temporary restricted airspace to the East of RAF Benson, and so, for ease of flying, Hungerford was chosen.

The plan was simple: take off, fly back towards Newbury and look to land either just before the town. Or if the speed was a little quicker than planned overfly and land around Thatcham. This latter option wasn’t as great as the race course was running, so that needed consideration but the forecast was to head a little further north than that anyway, so I didn’t expect it to be a problem. In fact, a flight back to Donnington Grove golf course was, potentially, on the cards, and after all, I like landing in the same place twice!

Setting up and inflating the balloon passed without issue and I took off heading in the Easterly direction I expected. And then it happened, then it dawned on me that I’d left my phone in the car. If my retrieve lost me, I had no way of easily contacting them once landed. Before mobile phones, you’d land, walk to the nearest public phone, call a central number leaving a message. If your crew didn’t know where you’d land, they’d call in, pick up the message and arrive shortly after to pick you up. However, because if it can go wrong it will, the only obvious central number – my parents – just happened to be out. Meaning that if my crew lost me, it could be a very long night indeed.

In this situation, priorities change, keeping easily visible becomes more important than having fun and so, low level flying and hopping trees goes out the window and in comes level flight at 1500-2000ft. And that’s just what I did. I flew high and bright all the way from Hungerford to Newbury, and it worked perfectly as, after 45 minutes and now looking for a suitable landing site I saw my crew driving along beneath me, beautifully watching me to drift on. It was all looking OK so far.

However, as I’m sure you realise it’s the landing and the sudden disappearing from view that could potentially crumble the whole thing. A field, miles from the road would be disastrous, it needed to be near civilisation and a phone. And the golf course up ahead looked perfect. From the air I could see a big building (I assumed the club house) with a tarmac road leading around the edge of the course to the rough grass I was heading straight for. It looked just what I needed – land, walk to the building, ring my phone, speak to the retrieve and await his arrival.

So I landed. And my perfect plan fell apart. The “club house” turned out to be a private house, uninhabited and being renovated, and instead, I was next to the 15th hole of Donnington Grove’s course – ironically named “The Fly Trap” – over a mile walk from the club house and the wrong side of the A34. It didn’t look good and it got even worse after it dawned on me my phone, while in the retrieve vehicle, had been left on silent!

I took off at 7.30pm landed at 8.30pm, and finally met up with my crew after countless phone calls, head scratching and thoughts of having to leave the balloon over night on the course, at 9.45pm. Amazingly enough, I had expected actually getting to the balloon by car at that time of night would be virtually impossible, but Donnington Grove couldn’t have been more helpful, and we had it packed up and where heading home just after 10pm.

It’s a lesson learnt, and a reminder of days past I don’t wish to relive, and to top it all off, the GoPro camera shut itself off randomly a minute after I set it recording even though the battery was fully charged. So apologises for the video as well!



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

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