Reply To: Let’s have some balloon flight stories

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I’ve been crewing balloons for many years. I was training as a pilot, 25 years ago, but the kids came along and it’s expensive. I keep thinking I ought to pick it up again, especially as I introduced my oldest friend to it and he now owns a balloon. We’re probably doing Albuquerque (the massive US fiesta) next year.

Your pilot sounds a liability. I’ve no idea what size balloon he was flying, but if it was a commercial operation and carried that many people, it was a big one. I’d guess at a 180-200 (180,000-200,000 cubic feet).

He should at the very least have made some sort of load estimate with two fatsos. There was a lot of weight there. Also, a crammed basket is dangerous – the pilot needs to be able to move quite quickly around the basket to change tanks, shut off valves, etc.

I remember, in the days before the internet, flying from Havering-Atte-Bower, in Essex. We were forecast a south-westerly which would have taken us up into Essex. We didn’t fly because when we put the club balloon up, we found some sod had put a rip in the envelope and not mentioned it. We watched as our companion took off.

Instead of heading north-east he headed due south. No problem: wind moves in different directions at different altitudes. So he climbed to catch the sou’wester. No joy. He continued to head for Romford. And there he got becalmed. We watched from the hill as he climbed and descended, trying to find a wind current, but there was nothing.

The problem was he was right in the approach for London City Airport. Oh, and you don’t carry much fuel in a balloon. We were looking at our watches and saying: “Well, in fifteen minutes, come what may, he’s going to be on the ground,” and worrying, because there aren’t many landing sites in Romford. And down he went.

A few minutes later, three or four airliners followed each other into LCY: they’d obviously been stacked while he was in the way.

When we all caught up with each other, he said that half of Romford appeared to be below him. He had a mobile phone (rare, then) and called LCY and informed them of his predicament. And, amazingly, there was a school playing field below him, so he was able to land.

The police were waiting for him as he landed, because they’d been alerted by LCY. They weren’t there to arrest him: they were taking care of the balloon and all the paraphernalia because (in their words): “They’ll nick anything, round here.”

The CAA did an investigation (flying into the controlled airspace of a TMA is a very serious infraction), but decided he’d done all the right things. He’d taken the forecast, but the wind had unexpectedly changed a very short time after. He’d alerted the airport, and made a sound landing, so no action was taken.

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