Former creative director at Virgin Airship & Balloon Company, Mark Lockwood, tells us about the fleet of Virgin aeroplane special shapes operated in the 1980s and 90s. Many iconic tethers and flights were arranged to promote Virgin Atlantic; inflating near the famous Hollywood sign, night glowing beside the Queen Mary, and flying from Wadi Rum desert in Jordan to name a few. They were even regulars at home in Bristol!
Lets wind the clock back to 1983. Virgin Atlantic Airways was the latest risky venture for the youthful entrepreneur and music industry mogul, Richard Branson. Viewed by the old school aviation establishment as a usurper and dubbed the ‘Rock and Roll' airline, there was significant resistance, and not a little jealousy, from the established national airlines who previously ruled the roost and monopolised flights across ‘the pond’, allowing fixed extortionate pricing and decidedly mediocre service.
Learning vital lessons from SkyTrain, the recently British Airways/TWA cartel quashed Sir Freddie Laker venture, Virgin Atlantic offered affordable transatlantic travel with a significantly better quality consumer experience. To say that Branson was flying by the seat of his pants would be an understatement. The star studded inaugural flight very nearly never happened and relied on him paying for the essential repairs to a faulty engine with his personal American Express credit card. Despite incredibly high hurdles flung up from both sides of the Atlantic, the airline flourished through grass roots support in the UK but struggled to make awareness headway in the US. Traditional advertising budgets in America needed to be telephone numbers to be truly effective so, out funded and out gunned on every level, the Virgin lateral thinking PR machine was brought to bear on the problem.
Teaming up with ex formula one boss turned international powerboat manufacturer, Ted Toleman, the challenge to break the 48 year old ‘Blue Ribband’ speed record to cross the Atlantic ocean took two goes after the first boat struck floating debris at high speed within sight of land, ending their chance of beating the record however creating significant media exposure and starting a rather unfortunate trend of Mr Branson getting wet. Undeterred, the team tried again, shattering the record and possibly inflicting permanent damage to their lumbar vertebrae. The media gobbled it up and Branson made a triumphant arrival along the Thames with then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, on board. It fitted well with the mood of commercial optimism prevailing at the time and Branson became the political poster boy of the period.
"Records are made to be broken. It is in man's nature to continue to strive to do just that." - Richard Branson
Most significantly this achievement started to generate traction with the US press and some of the very creative minds prevalent within the Virgin organisation started to cast around for other non conformist ways to keep the momentum rolling. What other ways of crossing the inhospitable north Atlantic has not yet been achieved? A chance meeting between Branson and balloon designer, builder and owner of Thunder and Colt Balloons, Per Lindstrand, led to the hatching of a plot to attempt the crossing in a balloon. There had been a number of gas balloon attempts to date, some tragically fatal, and it was not until August 1978 that American pilots Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman flew their Double Eagle II balloon from Maine to just outside Paris. Interest peaked again in 1984 when legendary balloonist Col. Joe Kittinger made the first solo crossing in his Rosie O’Grady branded helium balloon, again launching in Maine and ending up in Northern Italy. No-one had even considered that it could be achieved with purely hot air as the longest distance a hot air balloon had flown until then was just over 100 miles. The Atlantic was over 3,000 miles.
The Transatlantic balloon project was Lindstrand’s brain child and the technical prototyping programme required the building of a series of test bed development balloons as Branson underwent an intensive training programme to obtain his pilot’s license. At that time the only major commercial balloon operator was The Hot Air Balloon Company (HABCO), subsequently rebranded as Flying Pictures, and their chief pilot and Branson doppelgänger, Robin Batchelor, were tasked with Branson’s training. Then marketing director of Virgin Atlantic, Hugh Band, realised that the build up to and crossing attempt was a PR opportunity that needed to be exploited, however the experimental balloons were not fit for purpose and Per was commissioned to design and build a more promotional vehicle. The result: G-UMBO.
The concept of a Boeing 747 flying through a cloud was a stroke of genius as well as being a simple and operationally practical balloon. Based on a standard Thunder and Colt 77,000 cubic foot envelope, the most visually iconic Jumbo nose cone was faithfully reproduced with stubby wings, complete with suspended jet engines, and a full tail section with the iconic Virgin logo. Launched in January 1986 in Chateau D’Oex, at a time when special shapes were still very much a rarity and balloon events even thinner on the ground, G-UMBO very quickly became a fan favourite.
The media interest in the successful, if not uneventful, Transatlantic flight grew, so did the appearances of the rapidly growing promotional fleet. The Jumbo was joined by a standard shape 105 (G-OFLI) and the training 42 (G-SEAT) now tricked out with a customised twin air chair bottom end to appear as a pair of Virgin Atlantic Upper Class seats and Robin Batchelor now nattily dressed as an airline pilot. An iconic image of G-UMBO making a harmless low pass over the Clifton Suspension Bridge appeared in all the national media in the days before low flying restrictions were introduced.
Photo: Knowle West Media Centre
There was an all change in late 1987 when, now ex marketing director, Hugh Band teamed up with long time balloonist and commercial operator Mike Kendrick to form the Airship and Balloon Company. Backed by Branson, the new start up company set up shop in Telford, Shropshire in a smart new industrial unit and the Virgin fleet made its way there. The Jumbo also went back into the workshop at Thunder and Colt in Oswestry, where modifications were made to the tail section to keep it more horizontal in flight.
As the Virgin Atlantic airline grew, so did the number of destinations and the balloon fleet became increasingly in demand as highly visible site distance location markers and PR spearheads at the various route launches around the world. It soon became obvious that Jumbo was the most popular request but the logistics of getting the balloon and team around the world also became demanding. A second and even third balloon were needed. G-OVAA and purely US based G-BRDP were commissioned and came into service as G-UMBO was also given a full make-over. The first opportunity to bring the entire fleet together came with the highly important Los Angeles route launch and all three balloons were shipped to LA where they made separate appearances in Santa Monica, near the beach where Baywatch was filmed, by the iconic Hollywood sign, next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach and finally flying as a full fleet in the San Fernando valley.
Getting permissions to tether balloons in highly visible locations has always been a long and protracted series of negotiations, often requiring substantial additional insurance coverage as well as complying with demanding local officials and regulations. In LA, aircraft are prohibited from landing or taking off from the Santa Monica beach, a rule probably introduced after someone actually did it, and advertising billboards are also not allowed in the city limits. We therefore needed to convince the authorities that the balloon was neither and eventually managed to convince the Santa Monica police department that it was all ‘a bit of eccentric English fun’ and actually inflated the balloon in the very well protected police vehicle compound right behind Venice Beach. There was no shortage of suitable tethering vehicles (complete with blue lights!) and the crew did feel completely safe.
Finding a location near the Hollywood sign however needed a little more research and Griffith Park was chosen. Normally a baseball field and dog park, it required us to pay for a full LA police and fire department team on site as the risk of forest fire was a real concern, but we were able to tether early in the morning before the park was open to the public and took extra care with nomex groundsheets and plenty of fire extinguishers on hand. Using the 20 ton fire department REO Speedwagon tender as a tether point was extremely useful.
A night glow next to the Queen Mary also needed extensive negotiations as well as arranging to keep a large area of the tarmac car park clear for the evening. There were plenty of tether points as they left the mooring bollards for the ship in place, even though the hull was now set in concrete at the dock, but we needed to keep our distance from the huge hangar that housed Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose wooden seaplane. With three balloons, all these appearances happened on the same day and the local press were saturated with images and stories with everyone wondering how a single balloon could cover the distances between all the locations in such a short time period.
G-BRDP stayed on in the US to cover all the events there including the launch of the Boston route. On a tour of New England and New Hampshire, the balloon ended up in Boston central and was tethered in the giant foyer arch of a waterfront hotel, just the tail sticking out, as well as flying into the city and being given clearance from air traffic at Logan International, to land on Boston Common. It also flew from Central Park in New York, a very rare occurrence, that again required innumerable permits and permissions.
The other balloons returned to the UK and then on to numerous other events and appearances around the world. It was not until 1992 that they all came together again in the desert of Wadi Rum in Jordan for the celebration of HRH King Hussein’s birthday and the Royal Jordanian Balloon Rally. 50 of the best pilots in the world gathered for the first ‘Champion of Champions’ balloon festival. Qualification criteria for the event was only pilots who were world champions or world record holders. This was the most elite field ever assembled and the US pilot for G-BRDP was none other than Col. Joe Kittinger, who not only held the world record for the highest ever freefall parachute descent but also the overall endurance and distance record for a gas balloon, having crossed the Atlantic solo.
The popularity of the shapes has been enduring and fondly remembered by anyone who flew or saw them in the air. Friendly, cute, appealing as well as being highly effective at putting forward the fun and lively brand messages of Virgin Atlantic.
Finally retired, the balloons now reside in collections and museums; G-OVAA in the Delta Airlines museum in Atlanta, Georgia and G-UMBO with G-BRDP in a private balloon retirement collection. The trusty Boeing 747 has also been retired from commercial airlines and the Airbus A380 is now the mass people carrier of choice. A fine aircraft, it lacks that iconic Jumbo look and would not have quite the same impact if turned into a balloon.
Having flown G-UMBO and G-OVAA many times, I can vouch for the friendly nature and predictability of their performance and how easy they were to fly and handle on the ground. The smiling faces of both children and adults as you appeared overhead are their testimony and legacy.
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