Balloon Repair Station

All alone and nowhere to go (Tribulations of Cloudhopper flying)

Extreme Cloudhopper flying is not that common. Getting into extreme Cloudhopper flying unintentionally is rather more common. If the conditions or wind changes you don’t have the security of a laundry basket to huddle in as you crash and bump at alarming speed across rocks and through hedges. As we always say, you are the undercarriage. When our Barry found himself in these circumstances he did two remarkable things. Got away with it and wrote it down. Here’s his story …

I wrote this a while ago, after one of my early, and more educational hopper flights. I had some other pretty educational flights, which I’m sure others will be glad to remind me of. Excuse the writing style – these were pretty much written as ‘verbatim notes’, my own briefing recorded just a short while after the flight, and not long after visiting the local climbing shop to buy a ‘Joe Brown’ climbing helmet. You’ll understand, as you read on, just why I did that. Oh, and I originally intended to share it with some people who might not have known what a ‘cloudhopper’ was, so pardon me stating the occasional obvious thing.

Here’s how it went:

Sunday looked promising. I stuck my head out of the hotel window and the air was still. A cup of coffee and a banana for breakfast, and off to a 6:30 briefing. Forecast was much as for the previous day: 17-20kts @ 2000′, but locally l&v in the valley. Some mist & precipitation forecast for later in the morning. Observation by MK 1 Eyeball showed it to be eminently flyable in our patch of the valley, so all out onto the field.

You all know what a cloudhopper is like? They vary in spec & appearance a little, but all are essentially a tank, with a (small) seat attached somehow, and the burner right above your head. There aren’t too many web resources around at the moment, but some illustrations & info on the site, ditto,, and some interesting articles on John Ninomiya’s site (, and at

Inflation (for our rig) consists of laying the tank+burner+seat assembly on the deck, envelope (a 42) attached to a ring assembly that fits just below, and rotates around the (single) burner. A good cold pack is essential, because the mouth is pretty small, and there is no gimbal on the burner … well, there is: the ‘gimbal’ consists of pilot lifting and pointing whole bottom end whilst burning! Even a slight breeze can make this entertaining.

As soon as the envelope is up, you have to get some weight in the seat: 4 point harness on ours. This is where you need good crew, because whilst the pilot is tarting around getting in the harness and stowing essential equipment such as strikers, chocolate bars, hip flask, etc. someone needs to be keeping the envelope hot & upright. Actually, some of the guys who have flown the hoppers more than me (not hard!) claim to be able to do the whole lot single-handed.

I’m still perfecting what to take, what to abandon, where to stow stuff, and how to fly. This morning I decided to take a radio with remote mike, but still have not decided on the envelope bag. In the end, it stayed with my brother – on only his second retrieve. First was the previous day. Turns out the radio was a good decision….

Launch was lovely – light as feather, clear the tree tops by inches, calm enough to let you take stock and look around, but with just enough speed to allow you to quickly judge the immediate track. In this case, the track was straight over the (small) nearby town. Not that any of us would fly below the legit heights or too near to persons, structures, vehicles or vessels, but seeing as how the town was still asleep some fun might be had …

Valley flying was excellent: up and across to the far side of the valley (right of the wind), cross the river in the centre of the valley, down and left (back across the river and the town). A bit of a cold sink and a stop over the river. Feet wet ? Perhaps not, it is November after all. I got 3 or 4 of these little tacks in, then came to a gentle halt over a sports field. Gentle halt? Think about it… I was pretty much at the end of another valley mouth, joining ours, which in turn joined 3 or 4 more valleys ending at a few miles away. So this “halt” had to be a bit of an wind eddy effect. Still, loads more gas, loads more morning, loads more fields, retrieve was happy and taking photos, no indication of any radical weather change, so I hung around. The “eddy” eventually shifted me toward the centre of the valley – right over the only significant livestock in the area. Lots of horses, post & rail fencing, expensive looking house & vehicles. These clues usually suggest “stay high” so I did, and got the wind that took me back across the valley & the river. Down again once I’d crossed the livestock to get the left back to some good fields and the road where my retrieve still was.

Umm. No left. None at all. I was now climbing up the far side of the valley: over woodland, crossing a canal, over another road with good fields but bad powerlines. Up the hill some more, and picking up speed. OK, I’d like to land now, please, but lots of sheep. Later, I was to regret not landing with the sheep, and trying to talk them out of panicking. Reached the top of that ridge, crossing a visually distinctive church. A quick call to retrieve giving location, and warning that I was off into the next valley. Just had time to hear an acknowledgement, then I was descending into the next valley. No drama, there will surely be landing opportunities here.

Umm. Tight valley, vertical cliff on the far side, wooded this side. Road, river, and major powerlines. Super. A couple of nice sportsfields near the centre of the valley, but NO WAY am I messing the those big powerlines. Shudder.

Pretty quickly I’m up this next valley, but no time really to doing anything other than assess the situation and look up-track to see what’s next. Straight towards a bit of a dog-leg, with an old quarry site in the corner. And trees. Which I now appear to be approaching very quickly, both in the horizontal & vertical planes. One part of me is watching the thrashing tree-tops and thinking “that looks like turbulence”, the other parts (of me) are all concentrating on burning a lot, picking up my feet, grabbing the rip & crown lines, and reflecting on how close the cliff wall is becoming. (What do you call a man with a seagull on is head?) Hi Cliff. Took a quick look at the quarry, but it’s definitely NOT suitable for a hasty landing.

In the event, the crown line snagged on the tree tops (or vice versa), which combined with the turbulence to set the envelope into a bit of a wobble. Just perfect. I decided not to look. Good plan. Seconds passed. Slowly. Burnt a lot more and looked up and forward (there was a cliff, remember?) to see houses appearing as I cleared the cliff edge. OK – houses, gardens, roads, fields, landing opportunities. Stay calm. Keep flying. Stay calm. Keep. Flying.

Yahoo! A football field. Oh. Was a football field. Now gone. Hmm, I seem to be moving rather quickly. Oh right. I’m now above the valleys and into the gradient winds. I remember; 17 to 20 kts. I decide to forget. Not much I can do about the speed. Except speed up more, apparently. Time is distorting, because I seem to be thinking, processing and doing an awful lot in such a short space of time. Another field. Good? No. Damn. Power-lines – OK on another day, but not good, not good at all at this speed. I see some distinctively shaped lakes by a road – a quick report to my retrieve. An acknowledgement. Good man, that brother.

Look ahead. Open moorland. Reeds, sedge, water, moss. And rocks. Wet, mossy rocks. Open to the road after some more pits and ponds. Not great. Look ahead. Small peak – entirely shrouded in cloud. Seriously not great. Bugger. OK – perhaps the moorland looks good after all. They are mossy rocks, after all. And water is soft, right?

Cross the fence. Cross the road. Wait. Wait. Cross the pits & ponds. Wait. Wait. WAIT! No basket, remember? – keep a nice shallow approach trajectory. Stay calm. OK. Committed. Last burn. Pilot off. (Can’t reach the tank shutoff from the seat in this hopper). Feet up. A gentle tug on the rip and the seat and tank rotate so that the tank takes the correct position – i.e. tank hits the ground first. Thanks, hopper. Rip. Rip. RIP! Splash. Super. Water. A lot more water than I (thought) could see. Thump. Hit head. Hit head hard. Must check that later. Drag. Bounce. Pull, pull, pull. Swear. Pull some more. Rip not working? No. I’ve already pulled all the ripline there is to be pulled. Bugger. Swear some more. Bounce. Drag. Roll onto left side – round things, thanks. Brief thoughts of broken things and (lack of) proximity to help. Stopped. Really? Yup, stopped. Silence.

Twist harness release. Stuck. Damn. Not stuck. Just me panicking. Calm down. Undone. Roll out of the seat. More water. Splendid. What next? Oh yes. Check legs. They work. Check head. Umm. Blood. Decide to forget about the blood for the time being. Radio? Found radio. Check radio? No answer. Great. Not in sight of road, not in contact with anyone, head bleeding. Best I get in sight of the road then.

Wow! What a lot can happen in just a few very short minutes. Or was it even as long as minutes?

Things got better from here on up. I dragged some of my kit to the road (the seat unit is easily recognised for what it is) – road not so far away – closer than I imagined – and stood it there as a marker. Within a short time my brother worked out where I had to be from my landmark reports. Good job, bro! The kit was soon off the moor and into the car. The head was soon checked and proved to be not serious. And we got back to the hotel in time for bacon butties. Someone else that morning was also caught up in the same winds, experienced the same turbulence, and (from what I saw) they amply demonstrated that the bog that I landed in was actually a pretty soft option. Their landing was obviously hard – so hard, that when I went to help them out, it was in the full expectation of seeing something very bad. But that’s their story to tell…..

I learned a heck of a lot in a short space of time – and I’m still reviewing and replaying some of it.The lasting impression for me, both during and after the events, was just how much of my training, and how the knowledge (picked up from sharing with other balloonists) kicked in and kept me out of trouble. Things could so easily have gone from exciting to dire if I had not played the “stay calm – keep flying” mantra in my head. I learned some new lessons. And I relearned the value of some old ones.

One new lesson, already implemented. Crash helmet for hopper flights: certainly hopper flights in unfamiliar and changeable territory. Heads aren’t easy things to fix, especially not by the roadside, miles from anywhere.