If you want to find out what the attraction of ballooning is all about then Team Sackville’s Grass Roots Meet is the place to go and, despite not exactly the clearest of weather, it turned out to be every bit as good as it always is. Ballooning has been in the doldrums over the past few years what with increases in bureaucracy, insurance costs and simply private pilots taking up other interests that don’t involve hauling heavy bags of fabric about meaning quite a lot of both recent and older members of the fraternity have called it a day. This though has benefited the current batch of newcomers as there is a wealth of kit for sale, sometimes at knock down prices, so new blood is creeping, very welcomely, in. Tim Wilkinson’s Sackville Syndicate along with a rush of ‘younger’ people joining the local Chiltern Region and effectively running it has been a pleasant breath of fresh air. Things have also been gee’d up a bit by the U-turn by those EASA idiots in Brussels helped enormously by the CAA who seem to be doing everything they can to be upfront and helpful (bit of a worry that) so it was truly great to see the return, albeit possibly briefly, of some that had not been seen around for a while plus a bunch of enthusiastic first-timers not to mention a healthy bunch of modellers and enthusiasts, all willing to help, along with both of the CAA’s ballooning chaps in relaxed mode. There was also a great turn out by the local villagers many of who ended up crewing including farmers. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Now before we go charging full tilt into what happened I was sadly only able to do one of the two days but did break the rules and abandon the workshop on Friday to arrive for the Friday evening flight. The call for the meet was a no-brainer really but the threat of the odd shower and possibly not the best visibility was always a risk but the winds were promised as light so the first chance weekend of the 6 – 7 September was booked. As always the meet is open for flying on the Friday evening and by the time I got there it was like Glastonbury! Somehow I’d managed to get booked for check flights on all the three slots I would be there for. Somehow the mouth said “Yes”, without the brain being engaged. I couldn’t remember for the life of me who was who or on which slot but figured if we played it by ear all would be well. First off was Robert Gower, all a bit nervous but thorough, in a Bullet 77B (G-TTFG) who took me for a marvellous wobble plonking us gently in a field and pronounced good to go and with the retrieve there waiting we were soon back at base being served fine beer by me old mucker Barry Newman and tucking into beef stew and chips courtesy of the Kielder Organic Meats Company (Tim Wilkinson scans their sheep) and it was absolutely fantastic and very, very reasonably priced. They’ll be there next year for sure! During the evening the bar filled up and the beer went down but eventually enough was enough and we got sent home and adjourned to tents various.
Next morning dawned as expected with clag and cloud lurking all around. It was forecast to clear but the launch wouldn’t be much before ten so Team Alina Nikiel were stood down until the intrepid Dave Ling and Graham Holtam braved the murk and floated gently down and over the village. In a trice a healthy gaggle of balloons were filling the sky. We got airborne and had a very fine flight in her Ultramagic G-CBRK, witnessing a very surprised Rob Cross come across the Hare balloon and its cross then go into mild panic as he frantically searched for his marker. We did a low pass across the threshold of the old RAF Thurleigh airfield, these days better known as the Bedford Autodrome. We have a strange connection to the place as the 306th Bombardment Group, equipped with Flying Fortresses were based there and they were trained at the Wendover Air Base in Utah and not only that but Wendover is where the Bonneville Salt Flats are. Say no more lest I get truly anorak. Anyway Alina was impressed with the history lesson and we flew on to have a marvellous arrival in a fine field somewhere further east. The thing is that doing check flights from Sackville means that the student has the opportunity to do loads of high and low approaches over lovely fields. It’s a bit Mondovi without hills, sunshine, fine wine, dining outside in the evening, pasta… No its not really, can’t think what I was thinking there. A firm handshake declared student number two fit to buy breakfast. The rest of the day was great and spent chatting nonsense, watching the modellers, Jane turning up and us wandering around the airfield and eventually invading the nice Dave Johnson and Simon Smeeton’s campsite for champers and sloe gin. How civilised in a Grass Roots sort of way. Highlight of the afternoon was the arrival of Mike Gunston who had recovered from his horrendous car crash enough to get himself there in his lovely, Fairoaks-based, Czech-built Airwork Sportcruiser G-CFKB. He was on good form and soon out and about socialising as was Don Cameron who was warmly welcomed and clearly there to see what a proper balloon meet was all about and later got lobbed into the sky. Nice one Don.
As victim number three, Brian Mead, was getting ready for his flight it started to rain. Fortunately the envelope (G-BWAJ) was still in the trailer so it was all aboard the flying fish and wait for it to pass. Some were already inflated so it was a toss up to deflate or keep inflated and hope for the best. In true Grass Roots style the wondrous indecision was soon over and once more the sky got cluttered. As the balloons inflated a visiting Tiger Moth followed Mike Gunston out and departed into the hazy sun, the vision was timeless. Despite one or two operational details solved by Tim W coming to the rescue with a different bottom end Brian and I had a very challenging flight where steerage was all. Landing in a fine field with the farmer asking how Tim was coping and making sure we were all happy was just the icing on the cake. Of all the check flights Brian had the hardest for sure. As they say, “If it could go wrong it did go wrong”, but his training by Andy Austin (as were the other two) saw him through. and back at the launchsite I’m not sure who was the more the more delighted, probably Andy having had a hattrick or Brian who was done for and clearly emotional. We also learnt that Robert Gower had completed his solo in the first balloon he’d flown in, the BBM&L’s very precious G-BHTG. Spirits were high, the pork and chips smashing-super but I had to head ‘orf. I had Jane’s dad to take on the Dunkirk Little Ships Trip the next day and I had to somehow drive the old persons’ car back so celebrations were rather limited. While Jane stayed on and did the bar proud I nearly got destroyed by an errant Brickhill muntjac that had clearly less than no sense and appeared briefly in the Kenari’s excuse for headlights.
Sunday morning was beautiful, sunny and still. Typical! Whilst the balloons were sedately wobbling off at Sackville Edward and I were at the Thames Motor Yacht Club (TMYC) at Hampton Court and boarding the beautiful Riis 1 owned by the lovely and very understanding Anne and Alan Jackson for second half of The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships Association’s Annual Veterans’ Cruise Weekend. Founded by Sandy Evans who we learnt had sadly passed away last year, on the Saturday the Little Ships take veterans from the South Atlantic Campaign, the Korean War and war widows who, between the lot of them, allegedly drunk the flotilla dry as they travelled downstream through Teddington Lock towards Richmond before returning. Sunday though is reserved for the last remaining Dunkirk Veterans of which Jane’s dad, Edward Oates (94) is one and, as they are declining in numbers, this year they were joined by veterans from the Normandy Landings, the Arctic Convoys, the Destroyer Flotillas and Bomber Command. It was the third time I’d been privileged to join it and it’s a really moving affair. Their trip is upstream through Molesey and Sunbury Lock to the Weybridge Mariners Club where the fine folk dress in 1940’s garb and lay on a fine bit of traditional shepherd’s pie and peas followed by apple pie and custard. All along the route there are loads of people waving and cheering and the various Sailing Clubs that are passed lower the flag and take the salute. The locks are lined with Sea Cadets and each Little Ship gets a couple of new entrant Naval Ratings who generally help out. We’d just passed a four rowing hard going the other way. “I fancy having a crack at that,” explained one of our chaps. We explained that it takes an awful lot of training to pull together like that whereupon round the next bend was a Sea Scout group in vessels various who abandoned oars and sails and stood to attention. One rowing boat manned by four young girls then set about getting underway again. Now if ever there was a demonstration of how not to row in unison that was it. We raised our glasses to them. Following lunch, a good singsong and bit of a dance featuring ‘We’ll meet again’ and ‘They’ll be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover’ the Veterans get taken back to Hampton Court in a selection of top of the range Rollers, vintage cars and WW2 military vehicles. It is a really fantastic day out. Now I have to suffer the car trip there and back listening to the Huddersfield Colliery Brass Band Ensemble so that isn’t an option for Edward and as a few of the Little Ships head back to London and the East Coast we ask to join them for the return trip aboard Riis and very G&T it is. It does mean we rock up at Walton-on-Thames when everyone else has gone home but the voyage this year, in the company of Janthea, was a very jovial affair. This year there were about 20 Little Ships taking part and believe me these, in the main, are still maintained as proper sea-going vessels to a high standard. Not bonkers polish and stuff but I did find meself presented with a brush to help clean down after a bit of a scuff in one of the locks, but the reward of a fresh G&T was totally fine.
There is a misconception of the events that surrounded the Dunkirk Evacuation but suffice to say a rescue plan had already been put in place when things started to go wrong with the British Expeditionary Force’s attempt to hold France and the Navy were ready. This isn’t to diminish the extra-ordinary success of Operation Dynamo or the courage of those that took part but it was a very carefully planned operation. Riis 1, just shy of 60 foot, was originally called White Heather and built in 1920 by McGruer & Co. Ltd. of Clynder, Scotland as a 21st birthday present for Isla Johnston, daughter of the owner of a Scottish shipping company. McGruer were one of the finest yacht builders of they day and still survive as very well respected yacht and boat surveyors. Just to ensure we actually get an aviation connection in this part of the story it’s a little known fact that by 1916 all the wing struts of WW1 British fighters used McGruer hollow spars, as were the struts and fuselage booms of the later bombers including Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy that made the first transatlantic flight in 1919. There, that’ll do. Where were we? Ah, White Heather was enlisted early in 1940 and was brought by a Naval crew from Conway in North Wales to the South Coast to take part in Operation Dynamo and sailed for Dunkirk on 1st June 1940 and immediately put to ferrying troops to larger vessels waiting offshore. She also made three re-fuelling trips carrying troops direct to England and arriving back she took part in evacuating the 51st Highland Division from St. Valery-sur-Somme. On her return the Navy requisitioned her renaming her HMS Manatee and she entered service carrying out special operations in the North Sea and the English Channel. She was de-commissioned in 1947 and returned to her former owner who in turn sold her to Lieut. C. H. Brewster, who changed her name in 1949 to Riis I and later replaced the original 85hp Thornycroft petrol/paraffin engines for two 80hp Dorman Diesels. In 1959 she was found her lying at Conyer Creek off the Swale in Kent. Her new owner, Dr. Fellows, replaced the Dormans with 85hp Ford-Thornycroft diesels and restored back to her original specification when new. He later became the 8th Commodore of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships making Riis the flagship between 1984 and 1987. Bit like the British Balloon Museum and Library lot, the current owners, or rather carers as they see themselves, and our hosts Anne and Alan Jackson use the Riis as it should be making regular trips across the channel and around the coast both in connection with Associations’ Events and for pleasure. Back alongside the landing stage at Hampton Court we unloaded Edward, dragged him back up the gangway and bade our fond farewells to the crew of the Riis. As a parting shot Alan suggested we might like to pop up to St Katherine’s Dock in a weeks time as they were there for the Classic Boat Festival. We had a very short think about it and booked a day off and what a day it turned out. As we aimed for the M3 on dry land, Janthea and Riis headed downstream off for a bit of well earned supper.
By the time we’d negotiated the mainly slow to stationary Sunday evening M25 Jane had been back for a few hours and Edward was in the land of Morpheus. At Sackville the weekend had been declared an overwhelming success with four out of four slots having been flown and probably no doubt that Team Sackville were also in the land of Z. Jane reported that the bar had run out of proper beer which was a bit of a disaster but then again there were a lot more then expected but bottles of beer, cans and fizzy stuff kept spirits high. The ballooning was equally epic with five successful PPL checkouts. Simon Wardle checked out with Kevin Meehan and Rob Lovell with Dave Court. By Sunday lunchtime an amazing 98 different balloons had been spotted completing an astonishing 219 flights. From a Landowner Relations perspective it couldn’t have been better with no problems at all reported with some Sensitive Areas being removed. At prize-giving The Biggleswade Trophy, very popularly, went to Dave Court for his hard work on EASA. A smile was raised and good chuckle had after Ian Chadwick got the Long Distance Award having landed on Old Warden which was subject a NOTAM on account of it being their biggest airshow of the year. William Wood (Chris Woods old boy, as in son) and Andy Collett escaped the murk by going to 10,082ft and 10,000ft respectively so picked up Altitude Awards. By complete fluke and still thought to be rigged Rob Cross and A.N.Other won the Target Prize. Well received was a presentation by Kevin Meehan to Tim of a cutlery set to ensure he gets invited back. Big thanks, as always, went to Ultramagic’s Richard Penney, for his continuing support and who confirmed he would be the sponsor for next year then, amongst others, Team Sackville, Tim Wilkinson and all the numerous helpers that spent the weekend charging about making sure everything was as it should be. Now, next year I won’t be doing check flights, well, maybe just the one and if I’m really lucky it won’t be on the same day as The Little Ships.
http://www.adls.org.uk Dunkirk Little Ships Association website.
http://heatedenvelope.phanfare.com/6660409 Keith Ogden’s site with loads more Grass Roots piccies. If you or your balloon were there you’ll be here!
Big thanks to all those that sent us piccies.Clicking on them should enlarge then.