The Black Horse Pub at Mobwell, Great Missenden, has changed like no other over the past year or so. The food is probably amongst the best in the area, the staff couldn’t be nicer and the pub itself is warm and inviting. It is no surprise then that following a major make-over and under the enthusiastic Chairmanship of Marie Still Black Horse Balloon Club has undergone a similar renaissance well demonstrated by the turnout to listen to Paul Spellward explain how ballooning will survive under EASA licensing. So it was that The Easter Meet reformed on Good Friday evening despite somewhat gusty conditions. Amongst those brave fellows were Jonathan Harris, Martin Freeston and Sandi, Jamie luvvie Cameron, family Steve Humphreys, Dave Jenks who offered to crew with Jane, Lawrie Ellis and Rebecca MacDonald (now Mrs Ellis - congratulations) fresh from Australia and, getting back in the air, Richard Simpson. It was like olden days. We’d been weather watching all week and sadly the it had gone from stunning for the weekend, to goodish, to possibly Friday Night and Saturday and then to Friday night and Saturday morning maybe. The direction wasn’t that favourable from the Black Horse but the gusts were definitely getting less but unfortunately at about the same rate as the sun was setting. At the workshop we were rather socked in by trailers which meant that without major jiggling the only balloon we could easily get at was the trusty Cloudhopper so that is what we elected to load in the back of the Landie. Now it’s a while since I lobbed into the air in the harness but here we were and the winds looked favourable enough so the decision was made to give it a go. Down the field Richard Simpson, who is determined to get back in the air after a few years break, valiantly got G-RONI (his missis’s name) out and with Stuart Skinner for company set to getting ready, performed a faultless inflation and gently floated away between the gusts. Sheer luck! Not only that but his dog did the retrieve!
Our Cloudhopper, G-BSIG, apart from an outing with the Loughborough crowd to Italy or France or somewhere has been resting so was well overdue an airing. The first inflation went quite well then the pilot light kept going out and then it got gusty. Deflation was chosen and the pilot light re-adjusted. Probably not used to pressure in the cylinder! A second inflation went ahead and this time with a crew of six pilots (at least) all keen to throw me in the air we achieved success, slipped their grasp and barrelled upwards before tipping over and heading for Prestwood and beyond. It was quite remarkable how much I must have clearly forgotten but the view was stunning with London clearly visible and about three miles ahead was Mr Simpson. Time to come down and get rid of some speed. It did also occur to me that having inflated twice and had a fair struggle to get the thing upright I probably didn’t have that much fuel left so set my trusty Chinese wind-up Seagull watch to the hour and decided I’d need to be down in fifteen minutes. On the nose was a couple of fields in a deep valley. Perfect, then not perfect as I went down the hedgeline and wobbled about in a bit of unstable air. That’ll be gusting then. Never mind up and over and then the back road to High Wycombe that runs down the Hughenden Valley offered me a really lovely field and as I dropped down again I started lowering down nicely and was then reminded how little distortion a ‘21 needs to become a much smaller envelope! This was it, down to a hundred foot and a red kite spun underneath me, stunning, over the hedge and into a lovely grassy field bit of a drag A lovely little flight and amazingly there was more fuel than I expected left after possibly slightly longer than the prescribed 15 minutes! The old girl was clearly still flying well. Jane and Jenksies’ heads popped up over the hedge, the lovely farmer at Bottom Farm had told them to ‘help yourselves’. Back we trundled to the pub and three quarters of an hour later Mr Simpson arrived and reported that he’d had a stand up landing at Downley and his dog had been there when he landed. Nice one. Ale was enjoyed and the morning flight planned to go from Quainton.
Its becoming something of a tradition that I seem to have a flight with Mr Usill in his lovely Ultramagic G-WOTW every year. This time the excuse was that he needed and Instructor flight for his EASA licence and an Examiner flight to get current. Me instructing him! He’s a die hard competition pilot. Well at least I’d learn something. It was early doors Saturday morning. All week the inversion had been turning off abruptly at ten to eight and the trees gone garrety so best advice was be up and away quickly. Seven balloons including us braved the early start and launched in light winds. Tim Wood G-BXXP, Pat Unpronoucable G-PATP, Richard Allen G-SETI, Lawrie and Rebecca Ellis G-RBOW, Matt Rowley G-OAER and Mark Whitewood G-CCOP were there and raring to go. The gradient was good enough for a decent flight and as we had to test his cylinders the following week best use as much as possible. Oxford looked likely then. David is producing a series of rather splendid pictures which will form a series called “Ghost Buildings” featuring the shadows left by collapsed or demolished buildings. We’d only been airborne for a few minutes when a perfect example came up and out came his camera that cost the equivalent of a small house in Reigate, then we crossed the old Wescott Airfield where the remains of the old rocket propulsion unit are everywhere. He was in his element. With the M40 and Otmoor fast approaching it was time for a bit of a let down whereupon we positively missed quite a few fields. Never mind, I suggested our track was spot on for the playing fields behind the Unipart factory which was invisible over the next rise. We kept nice and low and caught the curlover as we dropped over Shotover Hill but it paid off and in front of us quite amazingly were the playing fields, then we turned right! It was decided to ‘ave a burmp’. That did the trick and as we lifted off again we started going towards the football pitches. They’d be locked of course but this was too good to miss and after some exceedingly concentrated flying David brought us over the hedge and in. There was little or no movement on the surface so I trotted off to see if anyone was about and blow me down there was Bradley Lewis and his dad Vincent who had just missed our take-off but followed us back to Oxford. Now with some experienced crew to help but somewhat erratic burning by David we managed to push and pull the balloon over to the gates. What a result and what great crew they were. Much appreciated. Our trusty retrieve was there in a trice and we were soon packed away. David presented Team Lewis with some rare WOTW pins and we bade them a fond farewell. Thanks Bradley for the picture.
Wendover was going to be chaos Saturday afternoon. It was Dolly’s 100th birthday so I was also likely to be in chaos so wouldn’t be flying in the evening whatever the weather! She has been working at the Red Lion since time began, well 76 years and still doing a few days a week. She would have already been old when I started bottling up on Saturday and Sunday mornings when I was 12 or 13. I can remember at least three retirement parties for her and umpteen birthday parties. I’m still naturally rude to her and still get a clip round the ear for cheek. We flew Dolly, Dennis the Cellarman (who limped on account of a gun carriage falling on his foot during the war) and Liz the chef inventor of the ‘powercut pie’ when the miner’s strike was on and who all had worked at the Red Lion since Christopher Wren and later Oliver Cromwell stayed there. We flew out of the carpark, did a circular flight around the village over her house and landed back in the local school whilst balloons from the Black Horse hurried overhead heading for North Bucks and beyond. I forget now the total time of service the three had but it was respectively outrageous. Bless, she’d been on the telly, interviewed on the radio and been photographed by the World’s press. The celebrations started at twelve and following some fine speeches she was given the freedom of Wendover and a key which presumably unlocks the Clocktower as we don’t have a City or Town Gate. The Marquis of Granby was renamed the Village Gate but I can’t see her going there somehow. One of the many stories was the occasion she was introduced to Piers Brosnan when they were filming a James Bond number at Halton House. “Hello Dolly, pleased to meet you, I’m James Brosman,” he very politely said. “Are you dear? I’ve never heard of you, I’m Dolly.” And shook his hand! The afternoon stayed fine and an abundance of locals that hadn’t been seen for years turned out. The Red Lion carpark was full of folk and Dolly’s Day was great. I rather got the impression that Dolly was completely overwhelmed by the event. The Fuller’s dray horses hauled a wagon load of kids off down Witchell and we staggered home and set to bottling up the Carrot Wine. Strange as may seem, having deduced Sunday's weather was not looking favourable, we then proceeded to test it. It is smashing super.
Sunday dawned as forecast although for a while the trees didn’t seem to be moving about too much, then I got the other eye open. The carrot it would seem is clearly stronger than it appears. According to XC Weather the day wasn’t going to get any better so time to regroup. Barry’s friend Eva was over from Poland for the Easter break and unlike most Polish people who had gone back to Poland for Easter, she elected to visit England and high on her list of ‘places to go’ was The Swan. After an hour or two of pleasantness and ESB it transpired that her long time wish was to ride a horse. We could do that but later that same evening, as they say, I checked the met forecast and it did look very favourable for the morning so we secretly arranged a balloon flight for her!
Black Horse Flight Control seemed to have broken down so at early doors we took the easy option and launched from the workshop field. A year or so ago we had replaced the top two rows in G-BVXD, a Cameron O-84 which we acquired off The Hedge Hoppers and used to be Prudential. For one reason or another we hadn’t got round to test inflating it so this would be the rerfect opportunity. Personally I reckon the Cameron ‘O-type’ is the best looking balloon ever built and they certainly do last well. With twelve straightforward gores and a decent sized parachute they are probably the easiest to repair and fly. Quite why Camerons stopped producing it I have never really worked out. It should have been re-launched as a lightweight. The morning dawned fine and dandy and and with Eva and Bazzer aboard we were in the air by seven. We lifted off from the future trackbed of the HS2 railway and looked rather forlornly down the line it would take as it swept towards Wendover on a nice concrete viaduct! For now though it was lovely with all the trees just about to explode into full leaf and ‘One of those days in England that you said could never end’ popped into my head. Establishing a good rate of climb to clear the pylons we didn’t have to burn again until we crossed the main road and Dunsmore. There is a lot to be said for silver balloons. As Eva didn’t seem familiar with Roy Harper’s work we opted for ‘Up, up and away’. The envelope looked great and by heck it was light to fly, All that was left of the original artwork was the rather splendid image of Prudence created by Wolff Olins and she was busy adjusting her hair in the mirror. Eva seemed happy enough and when we pointed out some horses she really perked up. Beings as this was a tourist flight we managed to get a gob full of right and a bit of speed and went over Chequers. If Dave was there he was still snoring but the Landrover was soon on the drive keeping an eagle eye on us no doubt. Realising that were climbing, at 2,000 foot he cluttered off for a cuppa. It wasn’t quite as clear as I thought it would be with long straggly wide streams of low level mist filling the valleys of the Chilterns whilst the Vale looked decidedly murky which accounted for the lack of others in the air. We dropped down over Monks Risborough and found ourselves with 90º of steerage and extremely light winds. This was about as good as it gets. I have to say the roads were almost empty and we saw hardly anyone about until we landed, I know, it was a Bank Holiday but it was beautiful morning. Well all things that go up eventually come down and in front of us was a nice road with no wires down it and apart from a couple of joggers and cyclists it was deserted. Coming very low across the wheat we put up two huge hares which bolted for the hedge and followed it at great speed down the headland. We bumped the hedge and in true Norfolk style swung forward and over it plonking down in the road. Jane and Alice were there to greet us and a few minutes later the envelope was all sausaged up and we were heading for a pint and breakfast in the King & Queen garden. We’d flown for an hour and twenty and, including the inflation, had used a cylinder of fuel. That’ll be about two minutes a litre. Not bad, so I’m seriously thinking about keeping it now! No! I was firmly told, so sadly Dear Prudence has to go. Then again we could always flog Unipart.