Balloon Repair Station

Old Thunder rocks again – G-BHTG a bit behind the scenes

Old Thunder rocks again – G-BHTG a bit behind the scenes

Relatively early balloons with low hours seldom turn up but in the case of Thunder G-BHTG, a 1980 56Bolt, that is exactly what happened. Purchased new in 1980 and christened ‘Halycon’, meaning calm and tranquil, by the MacDonalds from Surrey it only clocked up 53 hours before being retired in 1991 and eventually donated to the BBM&L (British Balloon Museum & Library) in 2010.

Thunder Balloons operated from their factory based in a warehouse at 75 Leonard Street, a short stroll from Old Street Station, in London (EC2) and used a Southampton sailmakers to build the envelopes hence the distinctive zig-zag stitching. It is built from, what is fondly referred to these days as, ‘crinkly fabric’ a coated ripstop that is somehow almost immune from the effects of mildew so does appear to last a long time. No crown ring is used the top load tapes being gathered up and sewn together with a crown line just looped through. G-BHTG was originally built with a skirt rather than a scoop and supplied with a single Thunder Mk1 burner. These burners were built for Thunder by Colt Balloons. It was claimed that these burners usually required much fettling to get rid of leaks before they could be released by Thunder. A ploy by a rival company perhaps? Skirts, although protecting the pilot light and flame from wind sheer, made inflation difficult in windy conditions and often resulted in singed eyebrows for the mouth crew! The introduction of the scoop by Cameron Balloons made things a whole lot easier and consequently many copies were made and fitted to other balloons including BHTG. The solid floor basket probably originates from Birdikins wickerworks based in Norfolk.

Inspection of the balloon revealed very few problems apart from replacement of a bit of mouthtape, a bit of restitching and a repair to the scoop. The original burner had been replaced with a more ‘modern’ Thunder MkII double which was a bit reluctant to channel propane to the drilled jets and was in need of new hoses. A bit of a serious rebuild was therefore required. Stripping out the old blast valve assemblies revealed a bit of a mis-match between the stems and seals, clearly a hasty earlier repair or, more likely, still in its original form! These burners were always notorious for leaking and the lack of a lower can means that there is a lot of radiant heat especially during the inflation. Pete Bish hunted around his stores and came up with two of the original Worthington cylinders and found an age-related one to replace the other. The basket was in great condition but the leg leather zips had seen better days so were replaced. The paperwork was all well out of date so that was put in order…. eventually! The logbook was a treasure as all the flights were well recorded with comments where appropriate and although the MacDonalds didn’t use it that much thankfully its history is well-recorded.

The first entry detailing its first test inspection is annotated by none other than the late Dick Wirth and dated 7/8/80. It turned out that John ‘the Needles’ remembered the balloon very well from his time at Thermal Aircraft in London. Thermal Aircraft was formed by Tony Patey when Thunder Balloons combined with Colt Balloons following the death of Dick Worth in 1982. Thunder & Colt then set up in Oswestry.

Apparently the deposit was paid and the balloon duly built. The Macdonalds then went abroad. As there was clearly no rush for delivery the original bottom end was sold and another one built. Then another and another until the balloon was finally delivered! Finally its first flight took place on 16th May 1982, or more correctly, a tether lasting 35 minutes at their home, Boothlands Farm. First flight proper was two months later and if the logbook entry deciphers properly it was a Hare and Hounds from the Ladies Invitation Meet at Bowood House. Amusingly ‘no damage’ is recorded alongside the entry. It attended the 1982 Bristol Fiesta and it saw in 1983 by attending the Icicle. The excitement of 1982 was possibly a flight from Haywards Heath to Brighton that took 45 minutes with a landing on what was then called Claydon Golf Course! The first damage occurred in February 1983 and was a burn to the lowest pink panel during the inflation. It had its first inspection at 8 hours on July 31st 1983 and was inspected by Ronald Taffe and passed as sound.

At the 1983 Bristol Fiesta it is recorded that it ‘landed over a tree’ but afterwards no damage was found. During the next few years it attended the Brittania Park and Parham House Meets as well as becoming a regular at Bristol and the Icicle. A ‘soft landing!’ was recorded on 8.9.85. Maybe that was something of a novelty!

The original burner was a basic Thunder single. Heavy and rather underpowered, Tony Patey’s Thermal Aircraft fitted a liquid fire to it in 1986 which, if memory serves, was more powerful than the main burner!! A trip to Holland in ’87 seems to have resulted in some singeing of the skirt and nomex. Its great when flights are described, even briefly, and the lovely thing is that the flights are often recored as ‘no damage’ clearly something tinged with amazement, or would that be surprise?

In 1988 the burner was updated to a Thunder MkII popularily known as a ‘Hot Tom’ and a liquid fire fitted, once again being more powerful than the noisy Hot Tom. Following a test flight with the new burner it was gleefully reported that at the end of the flight ‘NO mouth damage despite unstill conditions!’ Clearly thrilled with the improvement a scoop was fitted in November. Logbook reads ‘Evening flight dead calm-inflation after Thermal Aircraft mod-discarded skirt and installed new scoop. Reasonable fit-looks OK’. Some strengthening was carried out to the envelope by Thermal Aircraft in 1989.

BHTG attended the Icicle at Bradfords Farm in 1990, doing a morning flight that was ‘All normal’. Five further flights took place in 1990. The last recorded flight was an evening flight from Stroud Farm, Shamley Green, south of Guildford, on a north-westerly ending at North End Farm near Chiddingfold and lasting 50 minutes on 13th January 1991.

Now back on the UK register and passed as healthy it will be seen in the air once again, out and about in the care of the BBM&L occasionally sporting its Hot Tom! Big thanks go to Barrie Bower and Cameron Balloons who devised a cunning plan and got the original bottom end accepted by the CAA. No mean feat!

Please click on the images for a bigger picture (so I’m told!). Thanks to Andy Parsons for the old pictures of BHTG fitted with the single burner and the skirt and then the later scoop.