Now here’s a thing, the weather was perfect and the venue superb. With the trailer loaded up with the British Gas Flames we didn’t even need to leave at stupid o’clock to get to David Hopkins Pidley Golf Course for half ten. David’s new balloon was due its inspection and as the Flames had to go back to the BBM&L store, kindly provided by David, we reckoned a day out was the order of the day. Keen to get in on the action Andy Kaye asked if he could bring his balloons along and then David Tofton, who lives next door to Pidley Golf Course said that would be handy if could come along, meanwhile Neil Iveson turned up at ours a few days before when we got a slot to inspect his so he wouldn’t be coming and then it sort of got out of hand until we weren’t actually sure what we were inspecting. Never mind there was going to be plenty of help and at least three shapes to look at, one a close kept secret, apparently! The bacon sarnies at Pidley are superb but be warned they do come on a trendy square plate. As we scoffed a cohort of balloonists, along with trailers and vans started arriving and so we decided best to do battle. For the shapes, Andy was appointed master of ceremonies. If he burnt the things it would be down to him and anyway he needed the registrations in his logbook if he was going to be punting enamel badges. We chuckled, he laughed.
David had already got his envelope out in the overflow carpark and as it was his shout we decided to do that one first. Andy Kaye attempted to explain what was what and where and what went with what. I was confused and pointed him in the direction of Jane who had the pad and pen. A bottom end was set up a suitable distance away for the shapes and in no time David, aboard the Pidley JCB, was whizzing back and forth with balloon bags various eventually plonking the BBM&L Coffee Mug G-RMUG down ready for inspection. This is now the flagship for the museum and has made quite a few appearances so is definitely in the active balloon category. Officially a Cameron Mug-90 it was built in 1995 for Nestle and withdrawn from service in 2009. Kindly donated to the BBM&L it turned out to be in very good condition and was put back on the register in 2011 and now has over 200 hours on it. John and Jane gave it a well-thorough going over and it was puffed up and declared still in super-duper nick. It has a decent-sized standard parachute in the top and was soon back on the deck. Now this when it got great. We can do a fair number of inspections in a day but only if there is plenty of help so we don’t have to get involved in the packing up bit. To this end we had experts. Team Pidley thus comprised Neil and Dave Ivison, Martyn Turner, John Everton, Dave Hopkins, Damian Busby, Tina McAvoy and David Tofton. Missing was Jamie Edwards and his mob but more about that later. In a trice the Mug was away and another bag had landed in front the basket courtesy of Mr Hopkin’s and his JCB meanwhile, in the round corner, David Tofton’s Sky was being pulled out.
Back in the shapes section it appeared that the next jobbie was G-OAML, the somewhat strange Aston Martin Badge shaped balloon. This was commissioned by Aston Martin, then in Newport Pagnell and run by Roger Bennington, an Aston Martin Dealer from Norfolk (Stratton Motor Co) and Helicopter Operator. It was then handed over to Andy by a friend of Roger’s in 1999 with only a few hours on it and he operated pretty much where he thought fit. It was originally built with rip-panels and a parachute but as Andy only ever used the parachute, following a chat to that nice Barrie Bower at Camerons, the rip panels were sewn shut. Apart from that and a couple of small repairs to the ‘wings’ it is pretty much original. It has only flown at very select motor racing meetings and at few balloon meets spending much more time in Europe, mainly Germany, Holland, Luxembourg and Italy, clocking up around five or ten hours a year. With 120 or so hours now on it is still in pristine condition. Andy told us that despite its appearance it has superb flying characteristics and flies like a weather vane. Its basically a 105 but the wings give even more lift, in fact once one of the points are into wind it sits more stable than most round balloons, but watch out if it goes side on! It looks like an upside down pyramid and from a distance can appear like some kind of stealth craft. There are similar tetra balloons in the US, he added, but not with quite such extended wings. Scheduled to appear at Brands Hatch (and possibly Silverstone) in July in support of Aston Martin Racing it will off to the Joure and Warstein meets. The burners went on and in no time the shimmering green thingy was gently rocking in the warm breeze. A good walk round, check the parachute operation, and all was fine so down it came and the Team were on it like marching ants. You had to hand it to them, they definitely had this shape-packing thing sorted. Dave Tofton’s Sky 80 was fine but a couple of cylinders appeared to have two PRVs in them so they went on the ‘return with us’ pile. Meanwhile another round’un was being laid out and the Loadall scuttled off to pick up another fat bag this time from a rather inconspicuous trailer belonging to Damian Busby. Now what was this?
In the dark depths of time when Cameron balloons used rivetted washers on the flying wire protectors making changing either the flying wire or sock a right pain they got a commission from Swatch watches to build, I think, three or four watch special shapes. They were amazing as was the newly launched colourful Swatch watch range. I remember seeing them in the Aerostat but never in the UK. They all tick-tocked off to Switzerland and seemed to be tethered at all the main skiing events. Built in 1986 they were designated as Cameron Watch-75s, remarkably small for a shape. The one that came out was HB-BHB (originally G-BMJJ) construction number 1207 and had had a facelift at some stage, literally. Although simple looking the insides are all baffles and rigging and before we knew it John had managed to vanish behind the top baffles and was now peering somewhat concerned-looking over the top of them. We naturally all laughed as he did a very plausible “Whot, no way out?” Apart from a bit of discolouration in the white around the top it was in amazing condition. Damien risked a grin. According to the logbook one of the watch faces was changed somewhere along the way so there must be two different versions of this balloon. It hot inflated in double quick time, a good sign, and stood to attention like a proper trooper. Although it has a parachute it doesn’t have a crown ring, instead a lattice of load tapes prevents the parachute escaping. Two side crown lines are used to restrain it thus keeping the watch faces clear. Very clever. Its certainly well airworthy so it will be going back on the UK register, the paperwork sorted and hopefully it’ll be back in the air soon. Damien now had an extremely big grin on his face. Back on the ground the Team soon had it sorted, we just hoped it was shockproof!
Chips and tea turned up and very nice they were too but soon we were back at it and another standard round jobbie was looked at while we decided that while we were at it we may as well have a gander at the recently rediscovered Maxwell House Coffee jar. How appropriate, instant coffee and a mug to drink it out of! Two identical envelopes were built by Thunder & Colt in 1993 for a TV advert shot at the Iguaza Falls, on the border of Brazil and Argentina, the thinking being that one was bound to get trashed but both survived and on their return they went on tour round the UK. Malcolm ‘the Bear’ Campbell and I had a fine fortnight with them. When they retired it was planned that one should go to the Balloon Preservation Group and the other to the BBM&L. In the event they both ended up with the BPG. It was then suggested, as a goodwill gesture, that the BPG ‘present ‘ one to the BBM&L. This happened but then for some reason the BBM&L one ended up back with the BPG. It all gets vague then. Over the years we have been trying to find out what happened to them and have been led a right merry dance. Then few years ago G-BVBK turned up in Ireland in the care of Malcolm White who lavished vast expense on it in an attempt to get it back in the air. Currently it can be inflated but he told us that it is not airworthy. The other had seemingly vanished. We got tip offs that it was in Belgium, still with the BPG and that it had been trashed after getting soaked in a container. It appeared on Bart’s Special Shape website but he had no idea where it was. Then blow me down, it turned up amongst all the Go Ballooning stuff. Neil Ivison explained that after hearing about the liquidation Norman Smith requested the return of his ‘ex-BPG’ envelopes so they didn’t get caught up in the sale not knowing if Skypower, to whom they were loaned, were part of the liquidation. In response Phil Hossack emailed Norman a list of balloons he had for returning and one of the balloons mentioned was the Heller Fish, which was known to be elsewhere, so it became a ‘mystery bag’ so when Paul Sweatman went down to collect some of the envelopes he identified the mystery bag as Maxwell House and in double quick time Neil and his dad went down to Pewsey and retrieved taking it back to its rightful home. It had been there all along with some of the other BPG stuff. We opened the bag with a fair bit of trepidation but no bad smells wafted forth so maybe we were in luck. As the Team pulled it out it was apparent that G-BVBJ was in very good condition. This was the one originally intended for the BBM&L so we were well chuffed. The more we looked the better it became. Apart from some burn damage to the baffles inside the mouth, slightly sizzled turning vent lines and a couple of bits of artwork coming adrift it is all in very good health and we decided that we’d get it back in the air when the season’s over. For me, personally that is, it was almost (but not quite) an eye-watering moment. We’d spent so long looking for this balloon to find it in such good condition and still sporting the two panels that for some reason were somewhat greener than the rest was totally brill. I reckon the moment was nearly (but nowhere near) as good as when Camerons removed lifing from cylinders. Cripes I need to get a life or another passion!!! Anyway the thing looked marvellous and had we had some champers it would have been opened. We’ll save that for another day.
Before you could say “Mine’s a pint” the Coffee Jar was gone and a rather soggy looking smellier bag of material was dumped on the deck by the mighty JCB Loadall. This was supposedly the Bowler Hat which Jamie Edwards had agreed to get back in the air (inspection permitting). Was he mad? Not that mad as he couldn’t get off work (so he claimed) and it was definitely not in the most pristine condition. There was severe trepidation. We all stood back and wondered whether we should wait and see if J. Edwards would show up. According to the logbook we were the last to inspect it some years ago giving it 50 hours then and it had done very little since. There seemed to be a cloud forming as it was pulled out. It was just as I remembered. It came out in a big lump. Still we had hardened experts and they soon had it sussed. Between us all we couldn’t break it and despite it obviously having a fair amount of mildew you couldn’t blow through it. Best get some cold air in it and have a poke about the inside. We thought it prudent to send John in first as he had a grey sweatshirt. The Bowler Hat, G-OPKF was a fine piece of sculpture in its day. The artwork has to be removed before this can go flying again and a somewhat half-hearted attempt has already been made. Its not going to be a job for the faint-hearted. I remember flying it over London and it did look the dog’s. It was built by Cameron Balloons in 1990 for Pannell Kerr and Forster, a firm of Chartered Accountants, and rated as a ’90. It was jolly heavy and an absolute swine to pack away. We did finally get the hang of it by getting the air out the rim first then working backwards to the mouth and upwards to the parachute. If it was windy the thing would tip up and you’d drag along for ages it was just the same launching it in anything but a snuffly breeze. Dreadful. By now the wind had got up a bit so it tried to get up to its old tricks and tip over preventing the rim from inflating properly. Enough was enough and down it came in a big heap. We thought about letting physics take over but it didn’t actually seem to be losing that much air so we all held our breaths and set to. These things are never as bad as they seem and an onslaught soon had it beat and back in its now not quite so smelly bag. We’d give it 50 hours and Jamie a bit of coaching if he was serious. David and the mighty JCB returned it to its trailer and all was well again. I expect the grass will grow back once the dust blows away.
There were a couple of roundies left to do, the Maxwell House Balloon was lobbed sans JCB into our trailer. David H made the observation that once again one balloon had left the store and two had arrived. Everyone thanked everyone else and we made John roll about in the long grass to get rid of the mildew that had now moved into the seems of his cloths. It had been a smashing day and we can only thank everyone for their help and enthusiasm. I am still smiling at the unexpected superb condition of the Maxwell House Balloon. It will be great to get it up and running again. The logbook is missing but I’ll have a look in mine and check with Bear to see what he remembers about our tour. The Jars didn’t operate for long as the brand changed and the contract ended but they were superbly built and fun to fly, once we’d convinced the Office that they were really ‘77s!
A big thanks then to David Hopkins and the crowd that turned up to help. Apologies for not flagging the day but to be honest we didn’t know what we were likely to inspect and certainly hadn’t expected to get the Jar out or see the Swatch.