“It’s the relaxed way its so unorganised but just seems to work which makes this so brilliant”, explained a first time visitor to the Ultramagic Grass Roots Meet on Saturday afternoon clutching a rather over-filled pork and stuffing (with a splash of apple and salad) roll fresh from the pig roast. Having arrived Friday, flown, and flown again that morning they were clearly now chilling out. Well its nice it appears that way, maybe that is why it does work so well and is so popular. It is more like a family-come-social gathering for balloonists rather than a Balloon Meet. Whether you come with a balloon or not does not matter, everyone is made very welcome and this years’ event was no exception, numbers were bigger than ever but it was still relaxed and, put simply, brilliant fun.
The Grass Roots Meet is held at Sackville Lodge Airfield just North of Bedford, the brain-child of Rob Cross, it originally started a few years back with a very informal gathering at Cardington. Since then it has grown in popularity to become the biggest gathering of private balloonists in the country. There is no funfair, no pressure to fly, no press, no politics and no public to entertain. It is a social gathering for all those that have a love of ballooning and indeed a general love of flying, as demonstrated by Dave Boxall, designer of so many of the Special Shape Balloons, who turned up in his home-built aeroplane clocking up its 200th hour in the process. It did seem for a while that the Event would be cancelled following the decision of the British Balloon and Airship Club not to award a grant. Just as all seemed hopeless Richard Penney, who had recently taken over the Ultramagic dealership from the equally nice Tim Revel stepped in and saved the day, the event becoming the Ultramagic Grass Roots Meet. To add to the interest this year it was combined with the Model Balloonists’ Meet organised by Steve Cook and the balloon spotters came in force. The weather is always good thanks to a natty idea that rolls the event from one weekend to the next if the weather looks naff. This year the first choice weekend of the 8th and 9th September looked promising from a way out so the green light was given. The Met-man must have been working overtime and come the day the promised weather settled in bang on cue.
The meet opened officially on the Friday evening but in practice it opens from as early as the weather allows and people want to turn up. Accordingly they can leave whenever they want. Some choose to make a week of it. When I’d turned up there on the previous Thursday morning for a check-flight the campsite already had a spattering of tents and caravans, not least an enormous six-bedroomed Bedouin mansion of a thing that had taken four days to erect and was awaiting the arrival of the 40 member strong Team Chadwick. Tim Wilkinson, owner of the site and chief get-it-done-person, has now got some rather large bulk tanks in place so refuelling is never a problem at any time and the Airfield Club Hut has all the necessary facilities. This is the thing about The Grass Roots that makes it so attractive. The vast majority choose to camp or caravan, sleep in the marquee (once the bar eventually closes) or even crash out in the retrieve vehicle or trailer. Everything you need is there, breakfast at sparrow’s wotsits if you want, cold drinks, tea and coffee, general grub all day (and most of the night) and a good old-fashioned bar, all provided by Team Sackville. The NFU provided the marquee and a smaller one for the tea, coffee and snack bar is provided by Chiltern Region’s Barry Newman. Loads of people are just happy to do their bit.
Over eighty balloons and pilots booked in and more turned up on the off-chance over the course of the weekend. Friday night kicked off with a flurry of 34 balloons, Saturday saw a Metz-style line up down the runway of 72 balloons. We turned up early afternoon on Saturday and this time we brought along a couple of balloons, planned to stay the night and also decided to fly something rather than do check flights. Daughter Alice lent us her tent which turned up in an A4 padded envelope. Didn’t bode well. By the time we arrived the prime spots had long gone so we pitched up by the camp road. Well, laugh. This was the world’s smallest tent (without instructions). Having been fighting the small parcel for a quarter of an hour, watched by chuckling faces peering over adjoining tents, the kindly Jamie Edwards clearly couldn’t bear it any longer and casually wandered over, explained that we had it inside out, took over and had the waterproofed handkerchief up in a thrice. All we had to do now was figure out how to get the bedding in. Jamie was duly thanked but the proximity to the bogs meant the ambiance was not that great. This was were we scored though as we simply picked the whole lot up and carried it down the field to a fresher spot. It was a very small tent, even smaller than the one-man jobby nearby!
The afternoon was glorious and there were acres of trailers. Now I’d just had me annual ‘aircut and Scissorhands Fatz had done a serious bit of cropping this time round. Friends that I’ve known for years passed by. Dear old Mike Drye wandered past. “Hiya Mike”, I beamed proffering a hand. He stopped, looking a bit puzzled. “Blimey Chris, didn’t recognise you with no hair!” Good result, that’ll cut down the number of people wanting their logbooks updated with the EASA AD I reasoned! Briefing was at six. The weather declared fine and super. Alice along with Jamie her boyfriend and four year old grandson Charlie arrived. They’d come for the evening flight. I asked how she slept in the carrier bag of a tent. “Well sideways obviously dad”. She’s not much over five foot. The wind was warm and light out of the south. We decided to take them for a flight in G-BWEW the trusty old Unipart balloon which I haven’t flown for a while. It was great. We took off mid field, stayed low across the airfield then climbed gently up through the inversion to around 3500 feet young Charlie standing on a booster cushion and the envelope bag so he could see over the side. He was completely unphased and was soon spotting red cars, swimming pools, speeding motorbikes and passing aircraft. Eventually the A14 approached (A604 on Jane’s retrieve map!) and we headed down. Charlie spotted a fine Reynard dashing across a field yards from us, heron and hares. We went through 90º as we dropped lower and formed up line astern of a couple of balloons the nearest being Tim Horn in the Daf balloon, clearly heading for the same field. The left piled on and we popped back up for a moment to improve our chances. Charlie was stowed in the bottom of the basket. We brushed across the stubble settling gently down (that was a surprise!) until we met a deep tram-line and stopped. The top came out and we gently tipped over. Charlie was retrieved from the amongst the envelope bag and scrambled out. The sunset set was already starting to look spectacular and all around were combines, cultivators and grain trailers all being very busy, bright lights showing through the clouds of drifting dust.
The farmer was great. He was orchestrating three combines, balers and cultivators, a total of 14 bits of agricultural machinery spread over 7,000 acres that extended down to Grafham Water. He was originally from Granborough in North Bucks so we understood each other perfectly. His phone rang. One of the combines had got lost in a field and the grain trailer couldn’t find it. The sun had set and in the gathering darkness, despite a several thousand watt bank of lights the dust clouds were now making cutting nigh on impossible. It was also starting to get a bit damp slowing the combine down to a few kilometres an hour. It was probably time to call a halt before the student driving the grain trailer collided with the combine in the gloom. He shot off to the rescue promising to return. Keeping this bit very brief, Jane took quite a while to find us as the old maps didn’t actually show new roads like the A14 and she ended up in Peterborough as the exit off the AI was shut. Apparently we had agreed to follow Mr Usill in his beautiful Planet Earth balloon so that was what she followed unaware that we’d gone the other way at altitude. As promised he returned, kept guard with lights on in case a marauding cultivator came our way, and we discussed the various merits of tracked tractors, big header bars, crop yield and grain testing. Charlie, Jamie and Alice spotted satellites and shooting stars. Eventually Jane arrived on the road and was escorted across the prairie by our friendly farmer. She didn’t seem very amused but seeing Charlie’s broad grin soon sorted her out. “What was the best bit then Charlie?” she enquired. There was no hesitation in Charlie’s reply, “When the basket fell over.”
Whilst bidding our stalwart farmer farewell and thanking him for his help his phone rang again. It seemed the grain trailer, having performed a nearly perfect U-turn, which kicked up a huge dust cloud, had clipped the, by now, stationary invisible combine but, on the upside, the contractors had finished baling ahead of time. No damage done fortunately. He chuckled and headed due East, roof lights flashing, into the low dusty mist and darkness that was forming.
The rest of the evening involved mainly Jamie buying us drinks before Alice drove him and a sleeping Charlie home. Along with Rob Cross, Kevin Tanner and a couple of others we made sure the barrels were emptied and everyone got out of the beer tent and safely home. Eventually we struggled horizontally into the cocoon. Quite surprisingly it was very comfy even with the door unzipped as that is where our feet had to go.
Sunday morning arrived suddenly about stupid past four. Seems a couple of balloons decided to go for a night-flight so the plan of remaining comatose until just before six was gone. Somehow during the evening I had been asked to do a check flight for Jonathan Tyrell, one of the Neville Arms Syndicate, spookily the last balloon to land in our field the night before. I had intended to fly the hopper G-BSIG with the Cameron Millennium bottom end which had been brought along for Ed Lubbock to borrow for a school tether later in the week. Seemed that he was flying his balloon so we asked Sue Kidd if she wanted to have a go in it. She was off like a shot! Following the night befores’ shenanigans Jane offered to stay and help.
The Neville Arms balloon G-BSMK is a old Cameron O-84, the best shaped balloon Cameron ever made. By the time I’d finished me tea the Team had already headed down the runway and were now just one of 70 something balloons all being pulled out and inflated to beat the promised increase in wind speed. Dear old Tim W came up on his trusty quad-bike asking if I needed a lift so, perched on the rear carrier like a trusty sheepdog, we headed off to find them. Well posh. Jonathan was all quiet confidence and very thorough and in no time we were joining the early morning flotilla and climbing to 500 foot to check out the inversion and do an approach. The inversion proved to be, indeed, very low with a good speed higher up. The flight was truly lovely and Jonathan put us down nice and neatly right next to a track on the edge of an undersown field coping very well with the very strong inversion that was barely 150 foot up bringing us down to under five knots. Our trusty retrieve were on the road and the farmer was great just asking that we don’t drive on the field but turn round at the end of the track. We deflated down aforementioned track, Jonathan was pronounced a pilot and the rest of us packed away in traditional crew-like manner watched by another new pilot.
Meanwhile back at Sackville the hopper had been duly got out and interest quickly grew. Between the assembled throng it was all put together and it was decided that a tether would be a good idea. Well ten pilots later, including London Region’s Val Roberts, Jeff Roberts, other half who never gets to fly had all had a bob up and down. Eventually it ran out of fuel. Seems there may well be some candidates for a cloudhopper in the not too far distant future!
As eleven o’clock approached the marquee started to fill for the prize-giving. Mike Gunston was thanked for his tether school session getting around a dozen PUTs signed off, Richard Penney and Paul Dickinson for their and Ultramagic’s support without which the Meet almost certainly wouldn’t have happened this year. Paul Dickinson’s new ‘Freespirit’ trophy was shared by the youngest pilots at the Meet, Tom Gouder and Phil Hooper both from Bristol. Two pilots managed to get checked out this year. Apart from Jonathan Tyrell, John Hilditch’s son Tom passed his GFT with BBAC Training Officer hero Dave Court on Saturday evening then did his solo on Sunday morning so got the Biggleswade Trophy. Amongst the competition winners was one David Usill who had adamantly stated that his days of competition flying were over as it had all got too complicated, however, discovering that a proper Hare and Hounds was to be run he couldn’t resist and demonstrated that there was still a place for flying without a SatNav and computer. That’ll be a tenner won then! Finally huge thanks went to Tim and his family for all their hard work, Rob Cross, Stumpy and Peter Gray for sorting everyone out. Chatting to Nick Purvis outside the marquee afterwards it transpired that another four year old went flying on Saturday night. Nick Purvis and that stranger to the outside world, Cameron’s Quality Manager Craig Moore, were there with G-CHVV, the Cameron Z-90 Demonstrator built at the Bristol Fiesta, and took Ellie, the daughter of Matthew Freeman, one of their clients, for a flight, so they shared the Ultramagic stickers. As forecast, by midday, the wind was pretty impressive so it was pack up time. Here-in lay the benefit of micro-tent. We folded it up and stuffed it in the back of car. Two minutes, then watched the behemoths being stripped out, dismantled and packed away. Payback grinning time.
I have to say that when it became clear that there would be no funding from the British Balloon & Airship Club for this years event I did have a hint of a concern that the essence of the meet may have been a bit clodded up by having a major sponsor but come the day Richard Penney and Ultramagic were absolutely top banana. Richard’s Ultramagic Demonstrator was lent for the tether school and his Techno was there for all to have a look and poke about at. Despite their sponsorship Ultramagic remained very low profile, really just simply being one of the gang. No stand, no hard-sell but engaging with everyone from the balloon spotters to the pilots. They were fantastic and added to the Meet in every way, even donating the prizes for the various proper straightforward competitions. The Grass Roots Ballooning movement is extremely grateful to them for their support and it seems that they will be back next year. This then was a truly brilliant Meet and enjoyed by all. Personally, for us? Next year we are going to get a bigger tent.
The hard facts. 104 balloons attended with 90 free flying. There were 24 Instructors, 4 Examiners and many Pu/ts. 2 Check Outs (both successful), 2 Solos, 2 Recommendations, 2 revalidations, 11 Tether sign offs. Figures for the three days. Friday am 2, Friday pm 34, Saturday am 72, Saturday pm 73 and Sunday am 57. Total flights 239. Not bad.
Pictures courtesy of Jane, Richard Penney, Derek Wales and Tim Wilkinson.