I’ve finally got round to going through the albums and boxes of photos left in the loft and places various by my old man who passed away a couple of years ago. It is a shame so many of the pictures, some which have clearly come from his father, especially family pictures, have no reference to dates or the people in them let alone the location. There must be billions of historical photographs that will remain unseen and hidden away and will all probably end up in the recycling bin in due course. It does beg the question as to what will happen to the billions of images saved to discs, hard drives and compusticks or remaining on computers, cameras and phones that get lost, broken or stolen or simply not named or catalogued. We are now trying to name piccies with a short description for all that is worth, but it is a start. The backgrounds of these old piccies is often as interesting as the subject which, in itself often means that research takes one off in very odd directions. This was true of the masters and even a picture as famous as the Hay Wain tells you a whole lot more about the period than the picture itself would suggest but as usual I digress.
So, getting back to the original story, I found a couple of pictures of Jumpin Jack, G-BAIR, lurking in a book of photos. G-BAIR, classed as Thunder AX7-77, was Thunder Balloon serial number 03 and built at the Thunder Factory at 75 Leonard Street London. According to the Civil Aviation Authority’s website G-INFO it was first registered to Tom Donnolly, one of the founder members of the Company, on 27th November 1972 and had its maiden flight at the 1973 Marsh Benham Icicle Meet, reportedly as the first Thunder-built balloon. In January 1975 it was sold to the late Phil Hutchins who used it extensively gaining many records and awards along the way. What date were the pictures? A clue may be the Pimm’s banners it was sporting. Well if anyone should know its Pete Bish. He checked his little red pocket book and confirmed that it first flew from the Icicle but he wasn’t too sure about the date of the picture or the venue but agreed it looked very ‘Chilterns’ and Phil Hutchins lived in nearby Latimer at the time. I wandered up the Manor School and checked the view. Yep it was definitely Wendover Carnival and that was Boddington Hill in the background.
G-BAIR registration document - PDF (138kb)
Checking further, Bishy got back to us. Apparently Pimm’s took delivery of their own balloon G-BCAO (Thunder AX6-56A s/n 17) sometime in 1974 which had its maiden flight on the 7th July 1974 at the Royal Show. This must be correct as it says so in the Bishy/Baker publication ‘British Balloons’ (probably still available from Zebedee) which is generally more accurate than the CAA’s G-INFO! G-BCAO didn’t stay long in the UK, in June 1975 it was de-registered and departed for the States becoming N48169. Sad innit! That made the pictures probably pre-July 1974 so its possible its the 1973 Wendover Carnival held at the Manor School but probably the 1974 event (if they couldn’t be arsed to take the banners off) as Phil would have had his licence and been the new owner by then. If it was Phil flying in 1973 then he was still training. The records held by the CAA show that, although now de-registered, in 1990 G-BAIR was still being shown as registered to Phil and Marjory Hutchins at their old Latimer address.
Phil Hutchins was born in Shrewsbury in 1940. After serving in the Army from 1954 to 1964 he became a solicitor and moved to Latimer near Amersham in Bucks. He took up ballooning in 1971 having had his first flight with Simon Faithful in Shropshire. He went on the learn to fly with Terry Adams and got his licence, number 57, in 1974 and took part in the 1974 British Nationals (again in 1980). He was soon amongst the most active hot air balloon pilots in the world flying in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Kenya, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, S.Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.S.A, where he crossed the Grand Canyon. He gained a night rating and became an examiner and inspector. He took the UK distance record on two occasions, crossed the Channel and Alps many times and won the Mercier Challenge three consecutive years running. In 1977 he set the record for the highest hang-glider drop and won the Icicle Trophy and Westward Trophy. In 1982 he was awarded a Bronze Medal by the Royal Aero Club for his contribution to the revival of modern ballooning.He was most well-known for his association with the J&B Balloons which, following his death in 1982, shortly after he moved to Dirtywood Farm near Chequers, were taken over by Nick Godfrey.
We called Old & Rusty Nick who still looks after the J&B balloons and these days a Tring resident. “Yes, I flew in it when training with Phil Hutchins. I must have been at Wendover Carnival crewing but I cannot remember and haven’t now't in my old log book. Didn’t really bother in them days! I have some old pics but need to rummage through a few, well several, old boxes that lie in a cupboard.” Between us we decided it was most likely 1974 and, if it was, we watched it take off from the now long gone Wellhead pub just over the road.
Phil died as the result of a tragic accident on 28th August 1982 whilst at a meet in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg. He was giving a tethered display of the J&B bottle special shape using a Cloudhopper bottom end, essentially just a seat and harness. It was mid afternoon and the conditions on the surface appeared very calm however it was very thermic. Don Cameron reported in the October 1982 Aerostat that:
He was at ground level and had unstrapped himself. Very suddenly a thermal of quite unusual intensity swept through the site. The J&B bottle was lifted up and the jerk, as it reached the end of its tether line caused the pilot to fall out. He fell a distance of twenty feet or so and although medical assistance was immediately available he later died from his injuries.
The thermal was so strong that it was reported that it generated a spiral cloud of dust and several balloons broke their tethers and were swept towards the crowd. The Luxembourg authorities decided to make no inquiry and it was treated as a very unfortunate accident. The BBAC Committee asked Kevin Meehan and Don Cameron to produce a report to be published later. Nick recalls that the Funeral was held at Amersham Crematorium where, along with his many friends and relatives, everybody who was anybody in the ballooning world attended, the glitterati of the ballooning world at that time. The dangers of tethering then was not fully understood and these days daytime tethers are usually carried out with three point tethers and very short tether lines. These days, in a strange twist, J&B Whisky and Pym’s, started by James Pym, an Oyster Bar owner in London in 1823, are both now owned by the same company, London-based Diageo PLC and their history but their associations with balloons is another story. Quite where Jumpin Jack is these days remains uncertain but maybe sometime in the future it will reappear. For our part we’ll add 28th August to our national holiday dates.
J&B bottle aerostat - PDF (1.6Mb)