Well who would have thought it, the Icicle went flyable! Looking back over past years this has to be the most Icicle-that-nearly-wasn’t on more counts than one. Following the loss of the Savernake launchsite Pete Bish really did get the maps out and scoured the area for a new launchsite for most of 2013 clocking up an impressive 1200 extra miles in his trusty Fiesta and flying several recces in his aeroplane. The Elcot itself was offered but sadly next door is a sensitive area and the possibility of further upset was one that the Organisers really didn’t want to have to address so sadly it had to be discounted but the Hotel were also still keen to be the hosts for the associated ‘trade show’ and the evening bash so it would be nice to find somewhere reasonably close by. The Icicle is run by the Dante Group and actually when it comes to it most of the actual putting together and sorting is done by very few so when it seemed possible that Marlborough Common was looking like a strong contender it meant many hours of meetings with the Council, who are always Councils, meetings with health and safety bods and risk assessments having to be prepared. It was a very, very long way from the easy going ‘turn up and fly’ days of yore. Eventually though all was somehow sorted and the Common playing fields and Rugby Club was made available. They’d cut it fine but the Icicle was on. The weather wasn’t. Rain and wind had been non-stop but everyone looked long and hard at the Met and few days out there was just the outside hope that there would be a slot on Sunday morning, but you’d have to be quick and it was given that the ground was likely to be less than just water-logged. A frost dance was performed.
The Saturday was dreadful, the weather as forecast but the old Iciclers came out and turned up for the morning briefing (the briefing was brief) and very quickly The Elcot became the place to be, actually anywhere out of the atrocious weather was the place to be, and stuff was flying off the shelves, presumably comfort buying, even Don Cameron was spotted checking out a new lightweight basket to add to his kit. The evening dinner was equally well attended and Colin Wolstenholme, despite a rapidly failing voice, a result of having to shout through the gale earlier in the day for directions from the car park to hotel foyer which was obscured by clouds, gave a most interesting talk and humorous talk on the old fashioned art of managing to take off without anyone actually having a licence, something of a regular occurrence in the early days. Well Monty Golfer never had one so what was the problem?
Meanwhile back in the tea garden after the grills had come down on the bar heads were scratched and eyes glued to the weather systems rushing in from the south (and east, west and north) and the strange tapered gap in the isobars cartwheeling across southern England on Sunday morning. Would its arrival and departure, organised by Bishy, be that well timed? Outside, in the darkness, things were looking promising. Smokers came in with Icicles on their noses. It was cold. Seemed amazing but things were looking hopeful but the upper winds didn’t look like abating much. Overnight it got even colder, the wind and rain vanished, and at a time that confused the crows a determined bunch headed for the Common. Pete was upbeat the slot was here but wouldn’t be for long, the inversion would also be on an early train, but it was flyable and the hard frosty ground meant that no one ought to get bogged down and at least inflating the balloons would be a dry affair. The sunrise was spectacular as in amazingly spectacular and clearly showed the long finger that was allowing the brief interlude in the otherwise relentless wind and rain that the country was becoming used to. Five brave souls, including a fearless Tom Hilditch in his cloudhopper, swung and swayed out of the Common and into the lovely sky. Unsurprisingly three of the five balloons were definitely ‘winter balloons’ as the landing was bound to be wet and a wet balloon for the next week or so wasn’t an attractive proposition for most. Being on hill didn’t help much with the breeze but even so a couple of balloons managed a tether including the BBM&L Thunder G-BHTG and the valiant Peter Olliviere from Eastbourne with his G-BZBJ and as ever, not to be outdone, the modellers managed to put up a very nice Cameron Demonstrator.
As predicted the ground wind was light but 1500 foot up a healthy 20 knots plus was recorded on the GPS and tapping it made no difference. Gary Davies launched himself into the sky aboard his old and crusty G-FUND heading north and a short while later landed at Whitefield Farm just off the A346. “It was a lovely grass field”, he enthused, “Still with frost on it!” A wise decision which got him the Gemini Trophy for the oldest balloon to fly. Meanwhile Team RP, Messrs Parry and Penney, in a new Ultramagic Tekno jobby with a Spanish registration shot off to distant Faringdon Folly further confusing the locals and making their’s the longest flight. Richard Parry as ever declaring he would win something as he does every year. G-PUSS and G-BVHK, the old Intel Balloon, went off at jaunty angles to the delight of the spectators. Hero of the Hour though went to Tom Hilditch who courageously zoomed off in his hopper G-CBZJ encountering a tree on his final approach. A resident of Swindon spotted the pilot hanging from his balloon and thoughfully called the emergency services so when he did arrive at the farm gate, all smiles and small hole in the envelope, the local ambulance and police were there to greet him. Fortunately the Air Ambulance was stood down in the nick of time. Tom stuck a brief account on Faceache , "Grazed my right hand a little! Yeah, it was flyable, on the limit but I felt it was within my capabilities, didn't fully appreciate just how much difference lack of burner pressure makes to the responsiveness in a hopper and a tall tree refused to move itself from my path on final approach. Mistake was mine to learn from, not the weather's, or more so, not the wind's!" For his efforts he took home the Bravery Award. In a strange spin two hours later the police car that came to his aid was itself involved in an incident when it was hit up the chuff by another Audi just outside Swindon on the M4 resulting in the roof having to be cut off to free one of the officers. Fortunately all involved escaped with minor injuries. Stick to ballooning we say.
The verdict by all was that the Icicle once again didn’t disappoint even if for many it was purely a social event. Those that did manage to squeeze one in all survived and loved it. The new launchsite does have the benefit of a clubhouse and proper toilets but is on a hill which means it was relatively dry but is not that well sheltered and then there are the pitches that are understandably out of bounds so big numbers may be a bit of a problem but Iciclers are a hardy and resourceful bunch so this site got their thumbs up. Gary Davies summed it up nicely, “We had great time at the icicle, albeit not thinking we would get any flying in given the forecast!” Next year? Same place same time?
Tethered balloons G-BZBJ, G-BHTG and a rather nice Cameron Demonstrator model balloon, Free flew G-CBZJ, G-FUND, G-PUSS, G-BVHK, EC-LBK.
Pictures courtesy Mark Neal, Team Davies, Martin Freeston, Swindon Advertiser.