Balloon Repair Station

Strange times – The 5th Leap Meet, Feb 2020 – Peter Dowlen reports

I am writing this in strange times, we are in lockdown and, as I sit here in glorious April sunshine, I am reminiscing back to the very last balloon event, held in normal times, in the UK. I am speaking, of course, about the 2020 Leap Meet, held in Llandovery, South Wales, at the end of February, to celebrate Leap Day 2020. No less than 65 ballooners from all over the World, joined me and my team, to celebrate Leap Day, 29th February. Now, you may not know why this particular balloon meet started. A number of balloonists attempt to fly every single month. People, like Phil Dunnington and Pete Bish, have had a long ongoing dual, to ensure that every month, there is a tick in the box, another consecutive month flown. Currently Phil is ahead of Pete by exactly one year having flown every month for 39 years. Truly amazing.

My take on this is an oxymoron, similar, but different. I think their way puts you under a bit of pressure. Those winter months, wet and windy, cannot be easy to get in that all important monthly flight. No, what I set out to do, many years ago, was to try and fly on every single date in the calendar year. The Spring and Summer are easy and there are many dates that I have done a dozen times or more times over the years. No, my way includes those fairly difficult days, namely Christmas Day, Boxing Day and wet and windy days in the late autumn and winter, (unless, of course, you migrate to fly in the southern hemisphere). But, surely, the most difficult date of all, the one that only occurs every four years is, of course, February 29th, Leap Day! So, in mid 2003, I started a plan to see if we could arrange a meet in Wales, in Hay on Wye, to get likeminded lunatics to come in February 2004 to probably one of the least less flyable areas in Mid Wales, combined with the least flyable time of year and to knock this date off the list.

Amazingly, eight balloons answered the call and we took over most of the accommodation in Hay and, even more amazingly, it was perfectly flyable. Everyone who came, flew on the 29th February 2004. All, except Captain Bob Thursby, a former senior BA Captain, whose burner sprung an ‘O’ ring leak during inflation, in the freezing cold weather. We flew twice that year in almost Alpine conditions, my car indicated minus nine degrees C one morning. It was freezing cold, with a light snow covering on the hills and hard frost on the ground. Just perfect conditions, with wonderful views of the Brecon Beacons to the West, into Wales and the most pretty rolling countryside into England, to the East. Captain Thursby flew the following day, but unfortunately never managed Leap Day in his ballooning career, sadly passing on, in the autumn of 2018. To my amazement, everyone had a thoroughly good time and pestered me to do it again. I said, “Well you’ll have to wait another 4 years.” A lot of them came back saying, we can’t wait four years, so I decided to arrange an event every other year, calling the one between leap years, the “Not the Leap Meet”. Just ‘Not’, for short.

The only year, up to 2020, that was unflyable was 2006, which we held again in Hay-On-Wye, although one morning, the American team of Bill Milliken and George York, were very keen to fly, getting their lightweight, homemade balloon inflated and ready to go. I urged caution, because after take-off, they would go straight over the Black Mountains the long way, with very unpredictable currents upstairs. Good sense prevailed and, having packed away, the weather quickly turned for the worse and they were relieved, exchanging a challenging flight for a trip to the Hotel bar, for an early beer, to reminisce on times past.

Talking about times past, I come now to the 2020 event. This was the 5th Leap Meet and was held this time in Llandovery. Could I make it 5 Leap Meets in a row? Would 2020 mean I would notch a 5th Leap Day flight? As everyone knows, the winter of 2019/20 was dire. Not particularly cold, but oh so incredibly wet. I don’t think we had many days when it didn’t rain between October and February. With people coming from America, Australia, Scotland, France, Ireland, England and, of course, Wales, would we get a change in the weather? Would it stop raining, get some hard frosts, so the launch site would take our weight and, of course, would we fly? Covid-19 was just being talked about but, at that stage, pubs and hotels were all open and keen to welcome customers at this quiet time of year. No one then could have predicted what was going to happen just three weeks later. Little did we know it, but this was going to be the last UK meet held in pre-C times. Well, it didn’t stop raining and the ground didn’t dry out. Despite that, people arrived on the 27th February, towing balloons, coming with them from Ireland, England and Scotland, a long tow. Because of the likely poor weather, I had organised other things, mainly centred around pubs and water. The walk to Myddfai, my God, it was a wet day (see top photo), followed by an extensive barbeque and, the next day, Leap Day itself, a giant Pooh stick competition, held on the bridge over the slipway run off, (see middle piccie) coming out of the huge Llyn Brianne reservoir. There were two main meals, the barbeque at Myddfai, (see photo) and the survivors’ dinner, held in the Kings Head Hotel. Despite the rain and wind and, at one stage, driving sleet and, despite no flying, the event was enjoyed by all. I hope things soon return to normal and the “Not” meet in 2022 ‘Will’, of course, be flyable.

Peter Dowlen, for Easy Balloons, currently on Lockdown, in sunny garden at home, April 2020