Mark Lockwood, former creative director for Virgin Airship & Balloon Company, explains what life was like as a special shape hot air balloon pilot 25 years ago. We hope you enjoy this fascinating article which gives an insight into the glory days of UK Ballooning, crewing on shapes such as Action Man and Sonic the Hedgehog which now reside in our collection! Images are kindly supplied and scanned in by Dan at Ballooning Pictures UK. Over to you, Mark...
I was asked what life was like as the pilot of a special shape balloon back in the heyday of the 1990s? It’s a little hard to explain the full implications however I shall try to recount what it entailed for an imaginary build up and attendance at a fair-weather Bristol Balloon Fiesta let’s say around 1997.
Getting Ready for the Ride
It’s 4am on a Thursday morning and you have only managed to get 3 hours sleep before a 4-hour drive from home to Telford to meet up with your crew, check out the vehicle and trailer that has already been loaded along with up to 20 others at the warehouse. The operations department have prepared a pack for you which contains all the vehicle and personnel passes, a detailed job sheet specifying exactly the timings for each day at the event including company briefings, all the balloon and vehicle registrations, insurance and documents, log books, up to date marked up maps for both balloon and retrieve (these are the days long before GPS and nationwide mobile phone coverage!), charged radios, spare batteries and base stations. And most importantly, a laminated card with everyone’s contact numbers as well as balloon control, ops department, PR department and company management members on site.
The back of the vehicle, normally a fully branded 110 Land Rover, is stacked with plastic bins containing cleaned and pressed client crew suits in a wide variety of sizes, perhaps some corporate give-away items such as branded t-shirts or polo shirts, caps, badges, and stickers. After running through any specific requirements with the operations team and running through the equipment check list, it’s back on the road and heading down the M5 to Bristol. The trailer is a similarly branded Indespension twin axle unit also filled with a standard kit for the particular balloon you will be flying this weekend. This is basket complete with instruments fire extinguisher, drop line, tank straps and burners. An 8-horsepower fan which has been topped up with petrol and a full 3-gallon fuel can, up to 6 full 30 litre fuel tanks, the huge bag that is the special shape, a smaller back up 31 standard envelope with an air chair bottom end with its own integral 30 litre fuel tank, tether ropes and lots of spare karabiners. Everything has been checked by the operations department and any broken or damaged items either repaired and signed off or replaced. The trailer is full and can weigh nearly 3 tons.
Pilot & Crew Meeting Ahead of Fiesta
Arriving in Bristol, it’s straight to the hotel to check in, again something the ops department have already done for you and the process is easy and quick. Drop off your bags and plug in all the radio charging equipment for later and then meet up in the lobby and head for the meeting room that has been booked where there is coffee and refreshments laid on. All the pilots and crews attending the fiesta this weekend are present. This is where the management explain what is planned for the weekend, the press they have pre-arranged and the layout of the fleet on the field. Everything has been planned based on the importance of making sure all the clients get a chance to appear on TV, in the newspapers and magazines or mentioned on the radio. Everyone is reminded that there will be photographers and camera crews wandering around on the field and to pay attention to where they are pointing their lenses. Branded vehicles and trailers need to be positioned in the right place, the crew also reminded that there are logos on their suits and it’s better to turn their back and look like they are working than smiling at the camera, unless asked to by the photographer. The most important TV crew or national newspaper photographers will be in a specific camera balloon, and everyone is made aware which one. Those with rotation vents are reminded that a logo on the envelope is always positioned directly above the scoop so they instinctively know which way to position their balloon whilst paying attention to the all-important task of flying safely, particularly in close proximity to a lot of other balloons. The briefing lasts for an hour and prizes announced for those who are most creative at gaining their clients coverage as well as the ‘Dick of the Day’ award for anyone who does something obviously dumb!
Arriving at the Event
At this time on a non-official fiesta day, the traffic is light, and you head for the balloonists’ entrance at Ashton Court. Security check your vehicle pass before you drive down and find a space in the already filling up balloonists parking area at the back of the pilots marquee. Clutching your portfolio of documents, you head to check in whist the crew head off to find the refuelling area to familiarise themselves with the access and any changes to previous years. At check in the festival staff go through all your balloon documents and match them up with the copies already provided by the ops team, check your license validity, and take a photocopy of the last pages in your logbook to ensure your flight currency and RT rating. They hand over the pilot packs which contain all the meal vouchers for the weekend as well as lots of goodies and gifts from the event sponsors and the all-important farmers gift for the scheduled flight. Normally this is alcohol related and can vary from cider (always a local favourite in the south west!) to wine or even whiskey. Also included is a basket banner with your entry number that must be fixed on with some cable ties. You already have a wraparound branded banner on there so one side of the clients branding has to be sacrificed and it’s your job to know where that is when the cameras start rolling.
The crew meet you at the front of the marquee with the vehicle and trailer as the launch field is still empty, so you drive over to the special gate that has been set into the perimeter fence where the VABC hospitality unit is sited. This is a veteran Titan PD3 bus that has been completely converted into a chic and modern venue with catering at the back for clients and press and a viewing deck installed on the roof. This is the meeting point for all your passengers who will be brought to you on the field by the PR and account handling teams during flight times. As you are one of many balloons managed by VABC, your inflation position on the field has been pre-determined based on the type of media expected, the projected wind direction and even down to where the sun will rise and set in order to maximise the chances of getting your balloon in front of the cameras in the optimum lighting conditions. This is all clear to you after the briefing but it’s worth the time to sit with your crew and go through the most important points over again as well as finalising all your communications channels in the event of radio signal being weak. Mobile phones are still unreliable so a retrieve number, normally someone’s home where there is a landline and people around to answer it, is decided and you make sure the crew have some small change for the public telephone.
Thursday Special Shapes Launch
Today is the special shapes rodeo, something the fiesta has introduced in recent years for the evening before the Friday press launch. The public have started to fill the spectator areas and concession stands as the afternoon wears on, so it is an ideal opportunity for you and the crew to take some time to position yourselves in your allotted slot, drop the basket out of the trailer and start the process of rigging as well as setting up all the ropes and karabiners for a tethered display before the flight. Additional upwind tethering points arrive in the form of other VABC vehicles, and the pilots and crews of standard round balloons this weekend all lend a hand to help unload the massive, heavy envelope and drag it out. You know where all the various bits and extensions go as, even if you have never flown this particular special shape before, the crew will have plenty of experience and there will be other pilots on site who know it well. Standard company operating procedure dictates that all the flying wires are coiled and packed in the same format after each flight and any deflation Velcro has been closed before the envelope was packed away. It’s your job to double check them again anyway as the laying out procedure continues. Depending on the balloon shape, there may be one or several Velcro rip deflation panels also to be re-sealed and the restraining tongues tied back into place with cotton tie thread. These need to be thoroughly inspected before inflating as they may end up out of reach once the envelope is cold air inflated and the rip lines also will need to be traced and cleared all the way down to the basket.
The media have started to arrive and the field is beginning to fill up with other shapes both from the VABC stable and Flying Pictures as well as a few independently operated commercial ones. The camaraderie amongst everyone is palpable with jokes and stories being shared, however, once the call arrives to start inflation, the gloves are off and everyone must concentrate on maximising the media for their clients. Important TV crews are escorted by members of the PR team and brought to you for interviews or background shots. Remembering to do up your crew suit, including the Velcro closed collar where there is yet another logo, is vital. Being positive, upbeat, and smiling on camera, using simple techniques like making sure you are facing into the light and removing sunglasses, wearing a branded cap, and considering what is the background behind you are all the skills you have been taught at the company briefing. Once that is done, it’s time to concentrate on the job of actually getting the enormous shape inflated. There may be pauses during the process to take cameras and press into the envelope and show them around or give interviews. Your crew are vitally important at this stage as they need to know when to cut the fan to reduce the background noise or even man the burners to give an exciting and animated background to the news piece.
Finally, it’s time to get the balloon fully hot air inflated and stood up in position. There may be some re-adjustment of the tether lines required or the envelope rotated to ensure it is correctly positioned for the planned live broadcast into the news room. This can last up to one hour and normally ends with the weekend weather forecast, yet another opportunity to get your client’s name on screen. Fuel management is also vital during this stage as you need to leave sufficient to make a free flight at the end of the programme as the sign off moment. As the news normally ends at 6.50pm, this may still be a little early at this time of year, so you need to be prepared for a gusty or possibly thermic launch and flight. You would prefer to fly closer to 8pm but the media is more important so beggars cannot be choosers on this day. The management are monitoring the broadcast and the call comes over the company frequency to ‘Get Hot!’ in preparation for the launch. Everything in the basket is secured and you have your designated photographer or TV crew on board and have given them the standard passenger briefing, making sure that they are prepared to stow any heavy cameras or equipment before landing to avoid damage or losing them overboard. A padded manufacturers flight bag makes a perfect receptacle to hold a broadcast camera and battery pack, so one of these is secured between the tanks ready for the cameraman to stow his valuable equipment when needed.
As the programme ends, the call comes over the radio ‘Up Ships!’ Luckily the weather is kind this evening and you climb away amongst the mass of other VABC balloons, always keeping an eye on the designated camera balloon and all the others around you that might also be carrying photographers or camera crews. The winds take you across the field where there are other balloons launching so the rules of the air apply, and you give the aircraft below your priority as well as calling out or listening in to one of the other pilots who will tell you if you are clear above and safe to climb. You don’t forget to wave at the crowd as you cross the edge of the arena and climb out over the trees towards Ashton Court mansion house and the city beyond. The winds start to disperse on the group of balloons so there is more space around and you can concentrate on the job of flying. The envelope is much heavier that the standard round ones and reacts differently when you climb or descend, often rotating at its own pace and you need to burn more often to keep it straight and level at 1,500 feet over the city. Clearing the built-up area, lots of nice inviting fields start to appear but a glance at the marked-up map shows that the majority of them are ‘no landing zones’ after years of being visited by balloons uninvited. Luckily a large municipal playing field is directly on your track and many balloons are either making their approach or have already landed there. Briefing your passengers and calling the retrieve crew on the radio, you prepare everything in the basket making sure anything that could fly around is well secured and ensuring the cameraman has stowed his bulky heavy (and expensive!) equipment. The winds are not too bad between 5 and 6 knots as you let the big envelope cool naturally and make a controlled descent with the rip line in your hand. At about 10 feet off the ground and seeing that the area ahead is clear of landed balloons or vehicles, you haul on the rip line and hear the re-assuring sound of Velcro opening way above your head. It is a stand-up landing with just a slight drag and the crew are there to start opening the numerous rip panels in the extensions. As usual, lots of kids suddenly appear seemingly from nowhere and are all too willing to be press ganged into helping to squeeze the air out of all the appendages. This is where good crew come into their own, marshalling and curbing the exuberance and natural enthusiasm of lots of delighted and screaming souls. Small help is still useful!
Once the envelope is flattened and all the Velcro panels sealed up again, comes the back breaking hard work of getting it back into the envelope bag, which always seems to have shrunk in the last couple of hours. Depending on the shape, often a series of tank straps have been provided that make picking up the heavy material easier and feeding it into the bag in smaller bits. The problem always arises about halfway through the process as there is still a lot of fabric laying on the ground and the bag has now got to about 150 kilos and very hard to move. The crew know the best techniques, but it is still a long and arduous task despite all the extra help from kids and even other crews who shared the landing field. Once stuffed into its bag, then it has to be wrestled into the back of the trailer and everything secured for the return trip.
Back at the launch field, you drop off your passengers and de-brief with the operations team and PR team and let them know of anything observed during the flight or any problems before heading back to the main marquee for a further de-brief, handing back your landing forms and speaking to the landowner relations representative if there have been any problems with the location. Collecting your refuelling vouchers, it’s time to head off to the fuel point where the crew have already got the vehicle in the inevitable long queue and dug through the trailer to bring out any cylinders that need to be filled. It’s often a long and tedious process but not surprising with the number of balloons at the event, but once done, the trailer can be left in the secure balloonists parking. Today is quick but over the rest of the weekend, once the balance of non-commercial and club balloons arrive, it can take a couple of hours. There is normally a meal laid on in the pilots marquee, which is hot and brown and plenty of it, and lots of old friends and acquaintances arriving but there is no time to stop and spend time chatting as you have a 3.30am call in the morning and a very full day ahead so it’s back to the hotel, a quick dinner and bed by 11pm. It feels as if the moment you close your eyes, the alarm is going off and it’s time to start all over again. Groundhog Day.
Eat, Sleep Repeat: Friday Morning Press Launch
The trip to Ashton Court at this time in the morning is quick as the only traffic around are delivery trucks or other balloonists. A light mist fills the river valley, shrouding the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge as you make your way to the launch site. Hooking up the trailer, you make your way to the allocated launch slot and there are already lots of other VABC crews there getting positioned and ready to set up using the headlights of their vehicles. The management team have already been on site for an hour and there is hot coffee and croissants on offer at the bus as they start to welcome press and guests and you meet up with your designated passengers for the official press flight. Today it’s a national newspaper photographer and it’s your job to give him some interesting images that would be newsworthy and also tell the story of a manic morning at the fiesta. Not that hard to do once the envelopes start being pulled out and the fans being turned on to get a little air inside to allow the checking of parachutes and Velcro rip panels before the main event. The sun is starting to come up and the light is improving. The sponsors have priority when it comes to inflation, so no-one is allowed to cold inflate until the order comes through from main balloon control. Leaving the crew to tend to the balloon you head off to the pilot marquee for briefing where they give you the wind speeds and directions up to 5,000 feet as well as the forecast for the day together with any updates to the landowner situation that requires additional marking on your flight map. Permission to hot inflate will be given by the firing of a loud maroon.
Back to your balloon with your new landing form and landowner bottle, you start the checklist to make sure everything is ready for flying. The sponsors balloons are all inflated further down the field and there are countless video crews and photographers working their way around the field. Now is the time to look busy and approach as many as you can and invite them to come and have a look around your balloon, pointing out any interesting features and always making sure the client’s logo is visible. The call comes to allow cold air inflation and the volume of noise suddenly doubles as dozens of fans are turned up to full power. What was a field full of vehicles and trailers a moment ago disappears under a sea of billowing brightly coloured nylon. The crew are taking care that none of the appendages are snagging on trailers or hot exhaust pipes in the tangled maze of cars surrounding the balloons. Passengers and press are escorted under countless tether ropes and through the maze to their allotted balloons in preparation. The maroon booms overhead and the sounds change once again as the roar of powerful burners joins the drone of the fans. Balloons of all shapes and sizes rise majestically into the air and jostle for airspace as the noise of fans reduces with crews moving them away from the mouths of the balloons and lending their weight to the sides of the baskets. Scoops are attached, rip lines and parachute lines untangled and secured to the burner frames, quick release V-bridles set, and your passengers assisted into the basket. Keeping an eye on the position of your balloon and an ear to the radio, you wait for the instruction to launch. Once again, the call comes from management to “Get Hot” followed by “Up Ships” and you are off once again amongst a tight bunch of balloons following the camera balloon. Another flight over the wonderful city of Bristol.
The direction is slightly different this morning and you pass up over the trees at the western end of the field and up towards the quarry at the top of the hill. Joining the balloons this morning is one of the fleet of VABC helium blimps in the livery of telecoms giant Orange, carrying a gyrostabilised broadcast camera on the front of the gondola and beaming live images back to a syndicated news feed. As the ship is much more manoeuvrable, it flies around amongst the now scattered mass of balloons and you are able to chat to the pilot on the company frequency as he gives instructions for pilots to either climb or descend to create better images. You have to allow a little more time for your balloon to react due to the envelope weight as well as its aerodynamics. All this time you are keeping an eye on the images your passenger is looking for and where the other balloons are around you in the sky. The winds are very light and variable and, having cleared the no landing area of the quarry, a large field approaches with a mobile mooring mast for the airship and a cluster of branded support vehicles and hospitality trailers. This is their temporary airfield and a perfect spot to land. Many other balloons have decided to land there too, so you must choose the exact spot avoiding all the other baskets and envelopes dotted across the field. Luckily, it’s a big space so there is room for everyone, and it also means there will be plenty of others around to help wrangle your reluctant envelope back into its bag again. An hour later and the trailer is packed up and it’s time to head back to site.
Time for Tethering
After doing the normal debrief, dropping off your passengers back at the hospitality unit, refuelling yourself and the crew, you check the company schedule and see what time your tethering slot is that day. To avoid burn out over the weekend, the teams have been allocated either a morning or an afternoon slot for 1 hour. Today you are on the afternoon shift, so it allows time to get back to the hotel and grab a shower and some well-earned sleep for a couple of hours. Any professional pilot will tell you that it’s vital to ensure your crew are well fed so lunch is important, and you can either use all the daily allowance provided by the company and enjoy a meal at the hotel, or make it go a little further by finding a less expensive outlet somewhere in town. Feeding time at the zoo completed, it’s time to head back into the traffic and fight your way back to the launch field. Your slot is one hour before the scheduled evening mass launch with another live broadcast, which means you can set up for a three-point tether but keep prepared for free flight at the end. Setting up a three-point tether is a skill that must be mastered and an essential part of the commercial pilot’s tool kit. Knowing how to position the two upwind vehicles and having your crew behind the wheel if it is gusty or thermic as well as keeping the right tension on the tether lines if a vehicle moves. Judging the amount of weight in the basket either in fuel or human ballast. Having someone on the crown line who also monitors the downwind tether point and is your eyes and ears overseeing the entire balloon. These are the basics and in calm conditions it is fairly straightforward, but as soon as it gets windy that is where experience kicks in. What surface are the vehicles on? Wet grass, dry grass, tarmac, loose surface, mud? All of these affect the stability of the upwind tether points as just an 8-knot gust will drag a 3-ton Land Rover easily on a wet surface. Is the wind a constant speed and direction or gusty and swirling? Are you in the open or in the lee of trees or buildings that can offer some shelter, but also add to the complexities as the air is broken up or turbulent? You are lucky, today is a calm, hot and stable day.
Once again there are TV crews and live broadcasts to deal with in the evening before you fly for the end of the news programme, getting back to site around 10pm in the evening. Then it’s refuelling, grabbing a bite, and heading for the hotel and bed as the alarm clock will be going off again in about 4 hours time. That’s the Friday press day dealt with, just two more days with the same long hours and often back breaking work with everyone hoping that the Sunday evening flight may be cancelled due to poor weather and allow everyone to get away early.
If not, then first thing Monday morning you are back on the motorway to Telford to drop off the vehicle and trailer and head for home. But this is the summer season and next weekend is the Northampton Balloon Festival, so you have to get up and do it all over again as well as a series of other scheduled flights during the week.
No rest for the wicked!
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