Balloon Repair Station

An Australian Adventure-the bit you didn’t see

So it goes, often stranger than fact, when a project kicks off, that someone suggests something that isn’t exactly along a straight line. Indeed, as a Devon duck arrives on the table, maybe such a strange tale is better left for early morning. Having taken part in many a project, stunt or bit o’film work its more often than not that our participation
is never seen and, in fact, isn’t meant to be seen. Developing the gear well ahead of such events means that we often have to abide by the Hypocratic oath. Simply running the workshop means we could write a book! Now its all in the past and the top secret label has been removed here’s the other side of Robin Batch’s Australian Adventure. Early morning then, and very chilly, much like any other when the call came through that Tiger Aspect Productions had head-hunted the amazingly famous Robin Batchelor for yet another ballooning epic to follow on from his travels in Africa with Stephen Tompkinson. This time it was to be set in Australia and the Cameraman wanted to try and get a slightly different perspective on the way they filmed the basket shots. It seemed pretty straightforward, he wanted to be able to film from outside the basket, any ideas? Lunch at the Black Horse was hastily arranged, the tried and tested “back of a fag packet” was knicked from John and a plan drawn up. The cameraman Steve was an Australian and not afraid of heights (or anything) so that was great starting point. He wanted to be able to get shots of the two aeronauts in the basket but from a viewpoint not seen before and in such a way that it would be tricky for the viewer to figure out how it was being filmed. Steve wanted an outside L-shaped walkway around two sides of the basket. We didn’t have long as everything was being shipped out in early January. Nothing else for it, we had another beer and adjourned to the workshop. Luckily the basket was a large twin compartment partitioned one and the balloon, Daisy, being a Cameron 160 provided plenty of lift. The plan was to build the walkway in expensive lightweight aircraft quality stainless steel and strap it to the basket side. A low rail would be provided so that Steve could gain a bit of extra height and to stop his sandwich box and tinny from falling out. Soundman Luke would hide in the bottom of the larger compartment with Stephen Tompkinson standing and Robin would fly from the pilot compartment. A few calculations on weight distribution were worked out along with any additional loading on the burner frame and it all seemed to stack up. Out came empty beer crates and a mock up built to get an idea of dimensions. Steve carried out a rake of luvvie-type pretend camera shots. Fuelled on by his enthusiasm for the concept we bade our farewells and cracked on with designing and building the cradle.

Now as this was to be a bit of an aircraft we really needed a proper aircraft-type welder and we knew just the person for the job. Paul Sawney at Booker Airfield can weld almost anything to anything and also has the rare gift of being able to visualise an idea so, with the resassuring words “Not a problem”, we left him with a pile of steel and a drawing (of sorts). A week later we were back and with the bare frame attached by tank straps to the basket, balanced precariously on the pickup, gave it a trial run. Perfect everything fitted where it should and the cradle didn’t move even with two of us standing in it. Big smiles all round. Back to the workshop and we put all the bits together, dragged the forklift out and lifted the whole lot up with a reluctant John in it. He jumped about a bit, hoofed bits into and out of the basket from the cradle. We adjourned to the Swan to celebrate then returned to get John down. Couple of days later Steve the Camera turned up. He clambered about the basket leant out, leant in suspended by rigging lines. ‘Would it be possible to build a moveable camera mount?’. Another 20 Benson and Hedges were tipped out! Things were going well. Now when ever you do anything for the film industry there comes a point, these days, when a risk assessment has to be prepared. We’d drawn up a Flight Manual Supplement and Operations Manual for the system and had sent it off to Tiger Aspect’s H&S department and that font of all knowledge Barrie Bower at Cameron Balloons for approval. The thirty page document that came back from Tiger Aspects legal department was amazing and clearly prepared for the planned demonstration day that was to take place the following week rather than the operation of the cradle!

Anything to do with Health & Safety, as far as Steve was concerned, didn’t seem to feature so we decided that side of it was OK. The bit of paper that came back from Camerons was much simpler. All was in place for the final run through.
Tiger Aspect Productions descended in force. The H&S document advised them to ‘leave in plenty of time and stop for a break on their way to the workshop to avoid fatigue’. They did, I stopped for a pint of milk or two on the way up so that was OK so we were all declared un-fatigued. Kettle was on, cradle and frame all assembled and Steve had remembered his safety harness. Robin took on the role as PR spending most of the time in the pilot’s compartment telling tales of hornets’ nests and driving chaise longues around Brooklands in the good old days when lighting was by arc light and cameras came on lorries. We lifted the basket up and down Steve and the soundman tested it all out, the harness was modified allowing Steve to stand almost level with the top of the burners and Robin moved onto flying the Alps.

The moveable mount worked a treat. They even set up a monitor so we could all see the shots that were possible. It did look good, and after a full days luvvying about we all headed for well-earned celebration leaving Robin talking to an empty workshop! All we had to do now was pack it all up and get it shipped out. Job well done. When the series was finally broadcast the camera platform was nowhere to be seen and the shots were fantastic.

Steve ended up in hospital after an RB arrival on terra-firma at 40 knots (in the basket!) but recovered quickly and returned to finish off the programme. Fortunately the platform was not fitted that day as the surface winds were a bit outside the curve! The basket was effectively written off on its return, Daisy the Balloon ended up being sold to
Virgin Balloon Flights and is currently operating in Italy and the camera platform has probably been turned into something old and rusty by Robin! – how to land at 40mph–star-TVs-Wild-Heart-wondered-possibly-wrong-balloon.html how to survive landing at 40mph