I really didn’t understand why I had bought the Union Jack balloon at the Lindstrand Auction. Perhaps it was retail therapy to overcome my grief at loosing such a great team of people who I have had the pleasure of working with for 22 years. Perhaps it was my 13 year old suggesting we could fly for fun in it (really, is that still possible after 30 years of passenger flying?). Perhaps because it was the last balloon used by Lindstrands at an event (or shall we say “old” Lindstrands!). And then there were a number of people suggesting we would get acres of calls from TV and film companies for aerial work. Anyway £22,000 later and with a signwritten Lindstrand trailer, more stuff in Pete Bish’s rig we drove back and had a wake at the Air Balloon Pub on the Cirencester “bypass”. Note to self, don’t go to bloody auctions!
A trip to Chris’s to get all the paperwork in order and the balloon was ready to fester in the shed until an opportunity to fly it came up. Clearly we could use it for exclusive flights for patriotic couples who didn’t want to fly in the Happy Birthday balloon (perhaps because it wasn’t their birthday, who knows!). But then in June we had an idea, it was the Queen’s birthday coming up, perhaps we could fly it over Buckingham Palace and get a picture. Well we all know what the summer of 2015 has been like in the UK. So that scotched that one. So in the interim we have popped it up on a few flights with some of our more lunatic crew and the son and heir and had a big whale of a time.I had forgotten just how exciting landings can be without turning vents or rapid deflation systems. And I had also forgotten just how dangerously easy it is to pop a 77 in the air compared to a 425. No lifting and dragging of Landrovers and all that nonsense, just stick an 8 hp fan in front of it and two or three short burns into a fully inflated envelope and it is up. The surprise comes when you are doing over 15 knots as you go over the tree tops and how you drag over 100 yards in said wind speeds. Takes me back a good 30 years.
So with our London Balloon Flights season coming to a close, pressure was on and we suddenly had another brain wave. What about a picture for the longest reign? So we tried to do it on the Thursday but despite reasonable winds a preamble on the telephone with the duty controller at Swanick revealed a flaw in our plan that we had studiously ignored for just 20 years since we started doing these silly London flights in 1995 (that’s a whole nother story of serendipity). The little 77 had no transponder and Heathrow airspace is now a TMZ. Duh, call to our friends at ops to get our paperwork tweaked and Sunday dawned.Strong winds down the east coast freed the “Stig” up from his commitments in Essex to pilot the ‘77 which was a good job otherwise he would have got into a Stig like sulk. At the crack of dawn, or earlier, we met our 18 passengers in the best London take off location given the wind on the day. Sort out who would be the lucky two flying with the Stig as ballast and at 6.45am jumped into the air. “Target Acquired” over the radio and Phil the photographer who has done a lot of our air to air photography since 1993 was exhumed to take some brilliant shots which you can download as screensavers on our Adventure Balloons website news page. But after flying over Queenie it just went on and on. Past the Houses of Parliament, that big ferris wheel thingamyjig, then slip quietly past the Shard with the Walkie Talkie, Gerkhin and other “moderns” behind. What cracking light, nearly as bright as a summers day. Off to Eltham and after our aerial acrobatics for the camera the Stig and I both land within 100 metres of a Union Jack flag flying next to a gratefully received football training pitch, half a mile from a regularly used café next to a station for our passengers to return to central London after the flight. “I can’t believe I just did that, float over all those iconic sights in a wicker basket” said one of the passengers. Neither could I. And eventually, after we promised we hadn’t driven on the pitches, the cleaning lady unlocked the gates and let us out!