I’ll start: For my 40th birthday my wife arranged for me to go up with a local hot air balloon company. Won’t tell you who but they are often seen floating above Lancashire. It was all kept secret and after several false alarms, which I later realised were weather-related, we got the call one afternoon and and I found myself in a field beside the Ribble with the beginnings of an idea of what might be about to happen. Sure enough a Landy 110 turned up towing a trailer with a huge wicker basket and a bundle of nylon in a box.
The pilot and his crew got the massive envelope inflated and we all jumped in. At the last moment two hugely obese ladies turned up demanding to be allowed to fly. At first the pilot refused but after much argument he relented and somehow we got the two additions over the wicker side and squeezed in with about six of us and the pilot. Off we went and the pilot seemed to be burning a lot of gas to get us up to an unnecessarily high altitude. I was a little concerned at what looked like thundery weather about ten miles away over Pendle Hill but we stayed clear and drifted very slowly over the town of Blackburn, which is in a sheltered valley. It being evening and a still day, air movement ceased altogether and soon I realised that the pilot was starting to worry about his fuel; he tapped a couple of gauges and swopped a regulator over and began peering over the side looking for a landing site.
We seemed to be drifting towards the grounds of Blackburn Royal Infirmary, which would have been ideal for landing but then we drifted back to an area of the town called Audley. At chimney height we came close to a small park; the pilot unfurled a rope, which dropped into a terraced street, by now full of over-excited Asian kids who grabbed the rope and ragged it around, not knowing what to do with it. The pilot stared down at them and instead of having the strength of character to instruct them to pull the balloon into the park, he retrieved the rope and rolled it up.
We drifted aimlessly just above the roofs, narrowly missing the minaret of a mosque and a couple of chimney pots. By now the streets below us were a scene of mayhem with hundreds of Asians, their shalwar kameez flapping, dashing around shouting from street to street. Eventually we drifted above a manky area of waste ground covered in brambles at the back of some houses. The pilot dropped his rope again and this time some older men grabbed it and began pulling the balloon down. We crashed through a small tree and hit the ground, the pilot pulled his rip cord and down came the envelope on top of all the people and the brambles. My rather staid fellow pasengers seemed too shocked to move, staying in the basket and staring aghast at the screaming crowd like missionaries arriving in India. An elderly English woman turned up and began screeching that we had damaged her chimney and she wanted compensation.
Of the support convoy, my wife and infant son turned up first, having followed us in our Land Rover. My wife was distressed because in squeezing down a side street she had touched the bumper of an old car with the Land-Rover’s side step and the owner was chasing her demanding payment. I jumped out of the basket and went to check the damage, which turned out to be no more than a black rubber scuff on his paintwork. I told him he would be able to polish it off and when he complained I pointed to a Police officer who had just arrived, invited him to discuss it with her and headed back to the balloon to help. The envelope was folded up and stowed and dozens of willing hands helped to lift the basket while the pilot made a mess of reversing his trailer underneath it, having forgotten to drop the reversing clip on his towbar, which compressed up applying the trailer brakes. I had a clear impression of a man not in control and thoroughly flustered by the whole experience.
The next day the local paper (“Balloon Crash-Lands in Blackburn!”) revealed that the same pilot had been investigated by the CAA the year before after a passenger broke a leg on landing.