We are back with another special shape blog - this time all about the Tesco Trolley balloon built in 1998! Creative Director of Virgin Airship & Balloon Company at the time, Mark Lockwood, tells us about digital printing of artwork, the spectacular private launch of the balloon alongside additional 90 envelope, a memorable trip to the 'Balloons across the Mersey' meet and much more...
This blog also features never before seen photos of the balloon's launch at the Cardington hangars!
It’s amazing what can get cooked up in the back room bakery department of Tesco in Brislington.
At a crazy Bristol Balloon Fiesta, with dozens of balloons to keep an eye on together with their clients and passengers and numerous press opportunities to maximise whilst surrounded by hundreds of thousands of spectators milling around, it is sometimes hard to spend as much time as you would like with everyone who wants to come up and talk to you. I always tried. Most of the time it was the curious or the dedicated fan who just wanted to get an insight into the weird and wonderful world of ballooning and I enjoyed talking to everyone.
There were lulls during the day, particularly around lunchtime as we would normally have finished any post launch tethering displays and the crews were away refuelling and grabbing some rest before returning for the evening flights and leaving the arena free for ground based entertainments. In our hospitality unit, a custom built triple decker bus with upstairs open air lounge and rooftop viewing platform, we were not afforded the luxury of a break as we needed this time to speak to sponsors, top and tail media stories with the press and meet potential new clients. It was in one of these periods that a young bakery manager beat his way to my door.
Richard Sears was working at Tesco but had higher dreams. Living in Bristol he was acutely aware how effective balloons could be as a promotional tool, however he had a revolutionary vision of the future of balloon production and how to fund it. He had already been to Cameron Balloons and started exploratory discussions with the technical team but needed an operating company to realise his dream. The principle was simple, in theory. The trading relationships Tesco already had with many of the major consumer brands was already very strong and, for a comparatively tiny investment from enough of them, this would allow him to fund the build of a special shape. Cameron’s had already created a fairly similar shopping trolley balloon for Canada so most of the design development work was sitting there and ready to go, all we needed were the contributing brands and then working out how they would be arranged in the basket.
The quantum leap came with production. The advances in large format print and ink technology in the 1990s meant that previously expensive and time consuming billboards, requiring multiple sheets produced using traditional web offset plates, could now be inkjet printed in 3 metre wide continuous strips. The cost was still high in those days as it was new technology and there were a limited number of large format printers on the market, however it had become price comparative with the existing methods with a significant improvement in production time. Richard saw the future of artwork production in hot air balloons. Traditionally this had always been done using a combination of cut in panels, appliqué and hand painted finishing. Highly skilled seamstresses and artists would spend many hundreds of hours faithfully reproducing images and logos on vast meterage of fabric with no real vision of the finished product until the moment of first inflation.
© Airship & Balloon Company Ltd
Initial tests proved that the rip-stop fabric would hold the exterior grade oil based ink after a suitable drying time however there was really no information available regarding the effect on the soft polyurethane coating that gives this lightweight and strong fabric its barrier to porosity. Tests needed to be done. Ageing under strong UV lighting, heat and humidity tests proved that it did not affect the working properties of the fabric and the decision was taken to produce the main part of the envelope using this new technique. With the blessing of senior management, Richard was then able to sign up the various brands with designated positions within the trolley and contributions based on size and location. It became obvious very early on that the amount of funding generated would allow an additional back up envelope and cover the operational costs for the balloon.
Whilst production was racing ahead, we needed to come up with a suitable reveal to all the sponsors and management whilst keeping it a complete surprise. It’s a little hard to hide a 35 metre high fully inflated balloon so a little creative thinking was required. It struck me that the objective was not to hide the balloon, but to hide the guests! A suitable location needed to be found that would guarantee a winter inflation as well as allowing us to meet and greet the various dignitaries before blowing their minds with the scale of the balloon. Choices were limited and we eventually settled on the old airship hangars at Cardington in Bedford. There are two sheds there, originally built to house the R100 and R101 giant hydrogen filled rigid airships. One shed remained in the hands of the military and was in decent condition however the second, privately owned, unit had fallen into disrepair and was in a sad and sorry state. Negotiations began but the military singularly refused so we needed to ensure the safety of everyone attending as the roof had a tendency to drop rusting nuts and bolts without warning.
Taking over some of the empty office space there, we converted it into a suitably swish reception area with catering, Tesco’s Finest of course, and a blacked out covered walkway into the main hangar. Once the presentations had been made, we escorted all the hard hat wearing guests down this illuminated tunnel and gathered them together in front of a large set of curtains, which were drawn aside on cue to reveal the finished balloon in all its glory. Minds truly blown and not a raining bolt in sight!
The programme for the coming season started to fill up, centred around a core of the major balloon festivals, with a number of store visits and appearances at a few sponsor related events. It’s hard sometimes to explain to anyone not involved with ballooning, the many hours pilots and crews need to spend on the road getting to and from events dotted around the country and the logistics planning involved can get complicated relying on good old fashioned Ordnance Survey maps. These days it’s possible to plan all this using readily available GPS and GIS software and access to handheld devices and tablets, but it was corporations, like Tesco, who spearheaded the development of these apps in order to implement their home delivery services.
This technology had yet to arrive in the basket and the pilot, Nick Langley, still relied on the old OS maps for navigation in the air as did the retrieve crew on the ground. This never stops the occasional time the crew have to navigate along increasingly narrow lanes to find the balloon with invariably overhanging greenery. The top of the Tesco trailer was unwittingly converted into a sunshine roof by a low hanging tree branch at the Enfield Balloon Fiesta one year as the trolley flew off for the local TV network. Luckily, the cameraman faithfully stayed focused on the balloon!
© Airship & Balloon Company Ltd
One of my finest memories was in Birkenhead, an annual pilgrimage to the southern bank of the Mersey and a depressed part of the country that was very noticeably absent of cheerful balloons. The weather was kind to us, and it was delightful to see a spectacular mass launch drifting gracefully over the quiet closed shipyards and the river towards Liverpool with the iconic Liver Building as a backdrop. The trolley stood out so starkly against this austere landscape however the cheers and smiling expressions on the faces of the thousands of spectators who turned out showed how much the sight was appreciated. The retrieve crew had to work hard to get the vehicle and trailer out through the throng, but their struggle was certainly not over. As the balloons tracked to the north west, the only way to get to them was via the nearby Mersey Tunnel, which was not such an issue when the trailer was empty, however on the return journey with the balloon now safely stowed in the back, the gas cylinders created a huge problem for the tunnel security. As propane vapour is heavier than air, it will always try to find the lowest place to pool and tunnels are a natural point of hazard. It seemed to fall on deaf ears trying to explain to them that the tanks we use in balloons are aviation safety certified and are perfectly secure. The negotiations eventually ended up with all teams required to wait at the tunnel entrance and then be escorted through complete with flashing blue lights like a presidential motorcade.
And where did Nick land the balloon? In an empty Sainsburys car park!
Click to watch this great YouTube video from 1999 of Balloons Across the Mersey.
Our relationship with Richard and Tesco was truly commercially symbiotic and, together with specialist food suppliers, he was responsible for planning and providing the balanced and properly packaged nutrition needed by Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand when they made their various attempts at a global circumnavigation. The right diet for the right number of days and, most importantly, keeping the weight and volume at the absolute minimum so that it could be stored in the capsule.
Large format inkjet printing on balloons has come a long way since then and the Tesco trolley was the first test platform that proved it could be done. Some of the new balloons appearing today are complex fractal images covering the entire envelope that can only be reproduced using print technology. The proof in the pudding is that the balloon still exists, the artwork looks almost as good as it did the day it rolled out of the Cameron’s factory and entertained hundreds of thousands of balloon enthusiasts around the UK.
© Airship & Balloon Company Ltd
Read more about special shape balloons on MJ Ballooning
You can read more from Mark about many of his other special shape creations including Action Man, Bic Chick, Monster.com and Sonic the Hedgehog by following this link.
Welcome to MJ Ballooning's blog! Read about local goings on, special shapes and more.