Balloon Repair Station

Complicated doings at Sackville Lodge

After three roll-overs Rob Cross and team finally announced that the world renowned Grass Roots Meet, at the delightful Sackville Lodge airfield near Riseley just north of Bedford, a go-go for the weekend of the 1st and 2nd October. This was deemed cutting it a bit fine by some but any misgivings were quickly dispelled when the dear old metman promised a fine weekend. Even Friday looked good so no setting up camp in the rain!!

This is ‘The other Icicle Meet’ and with no red tape, great food, great socialising and flying in a well-friendly area, it shouldn’t be missed. Its what ballooning is all about. Now I always intend to take a balloon to the event but I always manage to get booked up for check flights of one sort or another so it is probably never going to happen and this year was no different. I’d promised I’d do a check flight over in Lincolnshire on the Friday night so was going to miss the first slot. Saturday morning was a PPL check flight with the slots on Saturday evening and Sunday morning reserved for other thingys!

The flight in Lincolnshire was a CPL for Chris Freeman. After a valiant tether we flew from Little Bytham, landing heroically in Kelsby some 40 minutes later. Now to the less well educated Little Bytham sports a fine viaduct (under which Chris lives) which carries the East Coast Mainline and is where the Mallard hit 126mph in 1938, still the official record for a steam train. There was once pub in the village called The Mallard but that sadly closed but to my joy the Willoughby Arms, just down the road, which was once the terminus building of the Edenham and Little Bytham Railway, was open so all was well, especially with Absolution ale at a respectable 5.3%! With all that steam stuff going on, and the fact we nigh on flew over the trackside memorial to the event, he passed.

Now driving is not my forte unless there is little or nothing else on the road so Jane had already had to chauffeur me up and down the A1 on Friday and so, as she seemed to handle that quite well, come Saturday morning, was summoned by the alarm to provide a similar service to Sackville. Now the victim for the PPL check flight was Adam Griffiths who hadn’t got off to a good start by suggesting that briefing was at six o’clock when in fact it was at quarter to seven! Tea and a fine bacon sandwich (with onions) helped the shock of being early. Conditions were near perfect and Adam took me for a fine flight in G-BEEI, one of the oldest balloons I have done a check flight in. Spotting a landing strip just outside Keyston, Adam made a fine approach but was thwarted at the last by a small noisy aeroplane that decided to take off just as we were on finals. Adam courteously plopped us down in the plough just before the strip and we dragged a short way to the airfield track. All was well and another PPL check out to Sackville!

Back at Sackville Jane had returned from walking the dogs so we did a tour of the campsite meeting up with old friends and getting a very fine cuppa from with the Symonds, who have finally decided to sell their lovely little balloon and retire from ballooning and concentrate on their Triumph TR6. Lunch followed and was a fine affair with a large lump of pig roast, something my dog showed intense interest in!

Before we knew it the evening briefing was upon us and Gavin the Chadders was ushering me towards a 140, large by Sackville standards! This was a flight to add Group ‘B’ to his commercial licence, I was told. We launched in a fine old manner. Approaches, emergencies and all the general passenger flying exercises were completed well and following the most impressive descent and landing in an old ridge and furrowed field, already occupied by Barry Newman and company, that many a crusty balloonist would have been proud to have achieved, he was pronounced fit for purpose. It was decided the debrief would be best carried out in the comfort of the bar at Sackville so, after collecting Chadders senior and his one-man basket from a field in the middle of nowhere, the course was set for home. I do feel that the route back may not have been that direct as there appeared to be some confusion between the Tomtits and iPhones that had been turned on by the Chadwicks in general to help guide us back.

Back at Sackville…..Jane had at some stage met up with Celia Kunert shortly after our departure and as a result was well down her eleventeenth vodka and tonic. The dogs were patrolling plates of grub and the beer was fast running out. We had to get back that evening as Jane was due to take five horses to a Show in the morning so her remains were poured into the car and we bade a fond farewell until the morning. Why on earth Bedford does not have an East West ring road defeats me but I only managed to go wrong once in the one way system going back. The dogs were comatose in the back.

Five o’clock Sunday morning and Barry Conway turned up as arranged and we set off back to Sackville. Barry used to run the Unipart Balloon Club so the early start didn’t seem to phase him. Once again I took a wrong turn in Bedford but soon recovered after nipping smartly the wrong way down a one way street.

I was going to be doing a Base and Line check with Dave Court (the hard working, long suffering BBAC Training Officer) in the 140 which Gavin kindly lent us. The Loughborough boys had a space in their shiny new balloon and very kindly offered Barry a flight so Dave, Andy Kaye, his daughter Chloe and I wobbled off into the sky. The 140 was a bit wheezy so flying light was a bonus! This time we headed out a bit more to the right of the evening’s track and had a lovely flight landing next to Barry Newman (again) just short of the A604. The farmer was there to greet us and Andy arranged to take him and his kids for a flight in his plane in the afternoon. All was fine.

Back at Sackville………..The mandatory tea and bacon sandwiches were consumed and we set about completing even more paperwork. Barry returned all beaming smiles and the closing ceremony begun. Dave Court had checked out Alex Daniels, did a Group B Base and Line check for Ben Pettitt and a Group B initial for Andy Kaye. I managed the same sort of thing but the star of the show was Mike Gunston who had amazingly got at least half a dozen PUTs through their tether training and, providing the wind dropped a bit, was set to do a few more in the afternoon. Big thanks were made to the organisers and helpers and Barry C and I headed for a spicy burger which didn’t disappoint.

To avoid getting lost in the intricacies of Bedford we decided to go home via Northampton and pay a visit to a friend of ours who has a lakeside palace on Billing Aquadrome where we enjoyed the warm afternoon sun and a couple of beers and automatic fishing.

As always The Grass Roots Meet had turned up trumps. A huge thanks to Tim Wilkinson and his family for all their hard work and for providing such an inspiring venue, Rob Cross for his boundless enthusiasm for the event and Peter Gray for generally sorting everyone out. This year special thanks have to go to Barry Newman whose Met forecasts were to everyone’s taste and was always there when we landed! If you have never been to the Grass Roots then I can’t recommend it enough. Roll on 2012.

As a postscript, my neighbour, who is a fount of knowledge on airfields, told me that during the World War II the US Airforce set up Riseley Camp, a base for filling and storing bombs for the surrounding airfields. This was between Riseley and Melchbourne House and was served by the road that now takes you up to Sackville Lodge which is actually the southern drive to Melchbourne House, hence the grand gatehouse entrance. This probably explains the existence of some very military looking huts, roads and concrete bases dotted about the immediate area which are clearly visible as you float out. Rather forebodingly, Coppice Wood, which most flew over was a dump for mustard gas canisters. There was a scandal in the late nineties when it was revealed that the clean up of the woods in 1988 was not entirely successful! So next year we’ll have to have a good potter round.