Bristol International Balloon Fiesta 2019 - Review
Following the fiesta’s spectacular 40th anniversary in 2018, a year later the city was ready for the 41st instalment and the 2019 Bristol Balloon Fiesta was just around the corner.
Despite the only flyable slot being Saturday morning in 2018, some of the best special shapes in the world appeared including the Superbike, Scottish Piper, Owlbert Eyenstein and a surprise appearance from 1990s favourite Rupert Bear. But in 2019 the fiesta certainly didn’t disappoint with two main special shapes attending for the very first time.
The first of these was Darth Vader, built by Cameron Balloons and test inflated just the other side of the trees in Ashton Court’s bowl 13 years before. It’s owned in Belgium but was being stored in America before the fiesta, so it was shipped from there. Pilot Benoit came along too. A crowdfunding page was set up and thanks to the generosity of the people of Bristol, Darth was able to return to the city he was built in and hopefully take flight.
Taiwan’s Oh Bear balloon team decided to add Bristol to their tour after attending Metz in France a couple of weeks before. Built to promote tourism in Taiwan, the loveable Oh Bear would surely be a hit with the kids and was only manufactured in 2018.
The press launch took place from Filton airfield to celebrate Concorde’s 50th anniversary with the usual round balloons taking part along with the Panther. Thanks to Mark Veale for these photos.
As with all large balloon festivals we attend, the week building up to the event is filled with mixed emotions with constant weather forecast checks and the hope that the weather gods will be on our side. You must remember that it can change so quickly in this country being on an island and looking at weather models weeks before probably isn’t the smartest idea! But it’s so tempting, isn’t it? As always, feel free to get in touch to ask anything but we are unable to comment on the weather leading up to an event.
Early signs weren’t too bad but as we got closer and closer to August 8th it became apparent that a very challenging weekend lay ahead for the balloonists. Friday and Saturday were looking particularly bad with wind speeds well out of operational limits as well as heavy rain forecast. Even on the day before, Thursday was uncertain regarding what might happen with winds steadily increasing throughout the day. Although the special shapes flight was looking odds against.
Due to many WRBBAC pilots wanting to fly from the fiesta site on Thursday morning the fiesta decided to add another official launch and encouraged pilots and public to attend. It was also said that Darth Vader would be there. This was the only realistic chance to fly.
The news was announced on Wednesday afternoon so we got home, got packed, got everything charged and got ready for the morning’s activities. It was very exciting!
We arrived on site in darkness to a good number of balloon teams setting up on the launch field. Soon after hundreds of families and people popping by on their way to work arrived to watch the spectacle. It was very busy for a morning launch, which is impressive seeing as it was completely unexpected.
Of course, the launch was given the green light and first to take to the skies was the Thatcher’s cider balloon. Exclusive Ballooning were out in force with three special shapes plus Fortnum & Mason, Renishaw making its eighth fiesta appearance and brand new Lindstrand London skyline envelope. Longleat’s Simbaloo the Lion was swapped in 2019 for newer Adelaide the Koala, also built by Ultramagic, to promote the opening of Koala creek at Longleat.
Brand new Lindstrand Ricoh cube was there replacing the old Cameron special shape they had manufactured in late 2012. The third shape of theirs was one we were hoping for but didn’t expect to see - the Hunter wellington boot, which was another Lindstrand Technologies envelope. It was great to see it at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta.
Belvoir Fruit Farms operated by Bailey Balloons was back for its third year after a CofA (certificate of airworthiness) check at Ashton Court a few weeks prior to the event. St Peter’s Hospice were official charity partner for a second year running with Bailey Balloons providing an envelope, G-CDIT, which is also BBC’s The One Show balloon.
Half way through the mass ascent two 'add-on' special shapes new to Bristol became airborne - Wes the Wolf and Roger the Black Panther. Wes ended up flying over Kingswood catching more of a south westerly wind.
Meanwhile Darth Vader and the Oh Bear were inflated and ready for take off. Everyone was very excited to finally see Darth Vader in Bristol and was the centre of attention. After staying on the ground for around twenty minutes to allow for all the press and photographers to get the shots they needed, Darth took to the skies with the Star Wars Imperial March music booming around Ashton Court. It slowly disappeared behind the trees and flew straight over Bristol, with many people on the lookout for him across the city.
Usual passenger, private and commercial round balloons took part. The Airship & Balloon Company didn’t have Stuart with them in 2019; they flew their main ABC Flights envelope G-CIHN alongside Shield, which has been at the London Marathon with a different banner. Other private balloons included SM Gauge, Penny, Ascent, new David Hathaway, Cathay Pacific and Red Box.
Sky High Ballooning inflated classic Bristol special shape the Chubb Fire Extinguisher, which is the last of three of these balloons built in 2000. It’s on loan to them from the BBM&L (British Balloon Museum & Library). Raffaello operated by Flying Enterprises remained tethered in the arena as BWS Standfast was last to take flight and public began to leave.
It was a great morning and we were so pleased to see all the special shapes, as looking at the weather ahead it didn’t look like much else would happen. The Bristol Balloon Fiesta in 2006 only had one small ascent on Friday morning as Ashton Court was hit with high winds during the other scheduled launches and tethers. Despite this, pilots did their best to tether (Tesco trolley, Chubb, Bertie Bassett, LG) but the winds forecast for 2019 were far worse and wouldn’t allow for any activity especially on Friday and Saturday.
Thursday Afternoon Tether
Following Darth Vader’s maiden flight over Bristol at 7am and a superb mass ascent, we headed back to a fairly calm Ashton Court at midday. As we walked around to the arena, many balloon teams were on the field ready for the lunchtime tether slot.
Exclusive Ballooning’s fleet were on display alongside Belvoir, Shield and the Chubb fire extinguisher. The wind was beginning to increase quite rapidly after 30 minutes of tethering with many of the special shapes swaying in the breeze.
Royal Navy joined them with Ben’s Tiles, SM Gauge, crowd favourite the Panther, Taittinger operated by Phoenix Balloons and brand new Bateman skips. This new Ultramagic M-105 had its maiden flight only 4 days before from the bowl.
G-EGES was inflated. Southern Plasticlad was last to tether with fiesta classic Pettefords struggling in the wind, which is stored with the Bristol Balloon Collectors.
As the day progressed the sun disappeared behind the clouds and we were left with a grey-looking Ashton Court. The special shape launch was cancelled as everyone expected although the arena was open for tethering. Exclusive Ballooning’s team were busy with their giant red Ricoh cube while star of the show Darth Vader was led out in preparation for a quick tether.
Once again with the Imperial March echoing around the site, Darth Vader was fully inflated for around 5 minutes as light rain began. Darth Vader is often seen at international balloon festivals with the Yoda special shape, and are particular favourites in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Yoda visited the UK in 2018 for the inaugural Midlands Air Festival.
At the bottom end of the arena you may have noticed a rental van with pilots and crew gathered around. Pilot Andrew Kaye was hoping to tether Snow White, last seen at Bristol in 2013, but decided to cancel due to the conditions. Babybel was in the back of the van too but sadly we didn’t see Mr Cool this time. Maybe in 2020? The rain didn’t put off Flying Enterprises though, as they tethered their Stowells wine box special shape. Stowells was built by Cameron Balloons in 1998 and is still airworthy. It doesn’t attend any other UK events besides Bristol and last flew from the 2016 Sunday morning ascent.
Renishaw and Fortnum & Mason kicked off the second wave of tethering and you can see from the photos just how windy it was. Bateman skips, Thatcher’s and the Bristol Balloon Collector’s main Bristol balloon joined the action soon after. G-BUVW featured during fiestas in the 1990s, often seen on programme covers and adverts. After some problems with the parachute on previous inflations, it inflated perfectly, with the aid of Kubicek Balloons’ basket.
B&A Group was last to tether piloted by Rob Clements. This was brand new at the time having its maiden voyage across the city on August 1st 2019.
Thursday Night Glow
Wind speeds were due to remain constant as darkness fell so the decision was made to cancel the normal hot air balloon glow and instead stage a basket and burner glow. The balloon envelopes would not be used and pilots would light up the sky with their burners in time with music. A great soundtrack was put together starting with Wallace and Gromit’s voices fading into some well-known tunes.
It was raining quite heavily throughout the glow but not as heavy as it was 20 minutes later. Everyone got absolutely drenched and it was the heaviest rain we can ever remember, but it was still a good night!
Friday & Saturday
Friday’s first mass ascent and press morning were cancelled and the site opened at around 11am due to torrential rain. It was made clear that no balloon action would take place on Friday.
The event was closed on Saturday with all activities cancelled. We were getting ready to come back for another basket glow but the organisers made the sensible decision to cancel for the safety of the public and to preserve the launch field in the hope that something would happen on Sunday.
Sunday Lunchtime & Afternoon
It was announced that the site would open at 11am on Sunday and if the weather allowed some balloons would tether. Very heavy, sharp showers were due to hit Ashton Court throughout the day. Pilot Craig Thompson made a good job to get G-RECL inflated but the wind proved too strong. Fishtank tethered for an hour in a downpour as we sheltered in the back of a trailer! Next to inflate was the Panther as a very dark cloud approached. As soon as ‘Roger’ was upright, the heavens opened, and everyone ran straight back into the balloonist marquee completely soaked.
Lindstrand Technologies’ emoji special shape made its fiesta debut in 2019. The showers had eventually passed through although the wind speeds were still an issue. Taittinger rounded off the afternoon tethering.
The evening mass ascent was cancelled but we were treated to a small display of special shape and round balloons. Darth Vader and the Oh Bear were unpacked for one last time. Pilots and crew did a fantastic job in the difficult conditions.
So that was the 2019 Bristol Balloon Fiesta. Without doubt the most unlucky fiesta regarding weather ever but the additional Thursday morning launch was a great spectacle and the people of Bristol got to see Darth Vader on three occasions. There was still lots to get up to and we still had an awesome weekend!
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Written by Matt Joyce 26/01/20