Leeds Castle in Kent has been the scene of many a wonderful balloon meet over the years so the announcement by Jem Ballooning’s James McDonald had been asked to organise a bit of a Flyout and Night Glow to accompany Leeds Castle Classical Concert on July 12th was warmly received with ten pilots booking into take part and another eight for the Night Glow. Even more fantastical was that to mark the start of the Leeds Castle Classical Concert a group of balloons were to fly from the Cedar Lawn right in front of the Castle followed by a Night Glow during the Concert proper. Now Night Glows are notoriously hard work but this one was to be a Basket Glow on the Castle walls with the finale, the 1812 Overture being the highlight. No envelopes required. Perfect.
Despite heavy rain showers being forecast along with a wind from the south, which is not the best or easiest direction when departing Leeds Castle by balloon, a flight over the Kent Downs is not recommended, come midday the first teams started to arrive. Was this the lure of a bit of posh Classical Music or the chance to fly from Leeds Castle? Whatever the reason 11 pilots had booked in to fly that evening so after an early briefing and much discussion it was decided that it would be flyable but only for short hops, which appealed to everyone as they wouldn't have far to get back to the concert! Two slots were proposed, the first planned before the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Hurricane & Spitfire Display, two aircraft that were regular sights Kent during the Battle of Britain, and the other option, just before sunset after the flypast was over.
The general consensus was that the earlier slot would be the best chance as winds were forecast to pick up later so, with the southerly flow still in place, the entourage very wisely de-camped from the Castle proper and into the grounds to enable a flight to be made over the top of the audience and the Castle with a landing on the lawns or golf course. With all 11 balloons now ready to go including two special shapes, Andy Kaye in Aston Martin and Tony Brown in Lips somewhat ominously about 15 minutes prior to inflation a big puffy cloud decided to start building right behind the Castle. It had seemingly come out of nowhere and the more capable pilots, checking their wipwap phones, reported that it wasn’t on the radar, the line of showers were apparently still over Crawley. Take two. While everyone held their breath and waited to see what would happen organiser James along with Garry Holmes went across the launch field, which comprised several acres, to make sure everyone was aware of the situation and naturally grab some brownies, the speciality of the Fell Reynolds team for sustenance! As they started to make their way back, a few spots of rained quickly turned into a deluge but this didn’t put off Richard Parry who already had his basket rigged and his envelope ready to be laid out the bag upon which he was laying, arms behind his head, just chilling and mainly getting wet. The first slot had been missed but as it turned out to their advantage as, returning to the holding area, everyone got to watch the fantastic and emotional Spitfire and Hurricane display and flypasts from a much better position than those who’d paid £50 quid for the privilege of being there.
At a quarter past eight, just as quickly as it had arrived the cloud vanished and it became eerily calm, so some of the hardier souls who didn't mind a damp balloon elected to go for it. Richard Parry, needing to dry himself and his kit out, took off first drifting directly over the crowd, conducting the Philharmonic Orchestra as he did so from the basket. The crowd loved it and focussed more on him than the music! This made him very happy. Tony Brown and Roddy Baker took off a little later also flying directly over the castle and landing on the other side where Andy Kaye was tethering the trusty and right posh Aston Martin balloon. Considering the conditions that at one time looked like preventing anything happening and, of course, the audience getting drenched it was decided that all in all a good display had been given. Balloons retrieved and packed away it was back to the Castle.
With the Philharmonic giving it their all, the time fast approached for basket glow. The nice Dave Johnson, an electrician of some renown, had kindly set up a system of bulbs and switches to indicate to the assembled balloonists when to burn. This Glow would be conducted by the Orchestra itself and Miriam, their very own Safety Officer. The burners flashed, flickered and roared to four ditties during fireworks, canons and assorted rising and falling tempos and everyone loved it rewarding the performers with enthusiastic clapping and cheering from the crowd. It really couldn't have gone better! At the debrief, in the traditional manner the event was deemed a success and all agreed that it was very nice to have balloons back over Leeds Castle. It is hoped that the event can be repeated next year so watch out for an announcement. A big thanks from Jem Ballooning goes to all who turned up and braved the conditions that so nearly meant it didn’t happen.