I carefully monitored the weather reports all week. After all this time I feel like a bit of expert when it comes to knowing what weather is considered suitable and safe for a balloon flight to be able to take place. It can't be rainy or foggy or misty. The wind speed can't be over 6mph. The wind speed has to be checked at different altitudes, not just on the ground. The wind has to be in the right direction so the balloon doesn't blow over built-up areas or anywhere it might be dangerous to land. Etc, etc, etc. I wrote about it here.
This time the weather actually seemed quite favourable; in fact, I was mainly worried that it wouldn't be windy enough as the forecast was showing speeds of 1mph. If it's not windy enough, the balloon would go straight up, hover around on the spot for a while and come straight back down again.
At the designated time of 11pm the night before the flight I rang the flight line number. Instead of the usual apology and explanation of why the flight was cancelled, I pricked up my ears as the pilot on the recording said 'Please listen to the following information very carefully'.
He went on to say that the flight would be going ahead, but not from Bakewell as originally planned. Instead we would be taking off from the back-up site of Tissington. He gave the meeting time and directions of where to park and how to get to the launch site from the car park.
Instructions duly noted, it was then it a mad rush to get everything ready and still try to get a bit of sleep before my alarm went off at 2.30am.
After a detour for petrol, I got to my co-balloonist's house before 3.30am and gulped down the coffee she had waiting for me.
It was starting to get light as we headed on empty roads towards the Peak District ticking off a (near) hit list of the kamikaze animals and birds determined to die under the wheels of my van. I like to think it's because of my superior driving skills that I managed to avoid them all.
Arriving in Tissington at the same time as several other people, we parked up and walked the 10 minutes up the lane to the launch site. Through an open gate and into a field containing a very large (and very flat) balloon, a large basket and a herd of very curious cows.
The cows were so intrigued at the strange goings on in their field they milled around us, stretching out their noses to sniff us and then skittering away when we turned round. They tried to get on the trailer that had brought the basket and balloon to the site. They wanted to get in the basket and they thought standing on a large piece of red nylon made a nice change from grass.
The basket, which was already attached to the balloon, was lying on its side. A large fan stood to either side of it. Two men volunteered to hold the ropes of the balloon as the cows were shooed away and the fans were switched on. The balloon slowly inflated as it filled with cold air from the fans. As the insides expanded to cavernous proportions, the pilot walked around inside checking everything out.
Once the balloon was fully inflated, the gas jets were turned on and flames roared into the balloon's innards, heating the air and causing the balloon to slowly rise. As it rose from the ground it pulled the basket upright and we were instructed to quickly climb in.
Climbing aboard was harder than it looked. Gaps in the side of the basket acted as steps so it all looked quite simple. But the basket was angled slightly outwards meaning gravity was working against us as we tried to hoist ourselves up and get our legs over the side. It was then quite a long drop into the inside, particularly when you were trying to not flail about too much and kick a fellow passenger in the face.
The basket was divided into five high-sided sections. The pilot was in the middle section with the gas jets directly above him. The sixteen passengers were divided into the four corner sections. The sections were narrow and the four people in each were close enough together to offer cushioning and support in case of any wobbles, but not packed so closely that it was uncomfortable.
Once we were all safely inside, the guy lines tying us to the back of the trailer were released and, waving goodbye to the cows, we drifted up into space. It was a very smooth take-off and we were surprised at how suddenly the ground seemed a long way below.
|A rival balloon|
As we spent about an hour and a quarter floating above the Peak District, two things I'd been told about still managed to surprise me. The first is that the trees really do look like broccoli. When I'd heard this I assumed it was a reference to how children refer to broccoli as 'baby trees' and that because the trees look so small from this height they could be the broccoli trees referred to by children. Not so. They actually, really and truly do look like they are made from heads of broccoli.
|Campsite in a quarry|
The second thing was the silence. Yes, I'd been told it would be quiet. Yes, I knew that apart from the odd time when the gas jets were blasting extra heat into the balloon there would be no noise from the balloon and that there would be no engines to give a constant background hum. What I hadn't realised is how much background noise there is usually in our daily lives and how we are so accustomed to it that we don't even notice it most of the time. Even in a quiet place you can usually hear cars in the distance, cows mooing, birds singing, the wind rustling the leaves in the trees, a stream trickling by. Up here, there was nothing. Nothing. It was so quiet and still it was almost eerie.
The eerie feeling was intensified by the lack of life below. We passed over campsites, villages, quarries, a factory. It was broad daylight but no-one was about. Of course this was because it was still unreasonably early on a Sunday morning, but as we'd been up for hours, it felt like it should be the middle of the day.
The pilot had his GPS connected to a laptop and pointed out places of interest below us. We got a really good view of the ancient stone circle Arbor Low and saw lots of other mounds that looked like tumuli. I'm used to walking in the Peak District and feel I know it quite well. Floating above it gave me such a different perspective though.
About an hour after we taken off the pilot started to look for a suitable field to land in. It had to have access for the truck and trailer to enter to collect the balloon and basket. It had to be flat and preferably without crops or animals. And of course away from telegraph wires.
About 15 minutes later we found a field and slowly descended. As we got close to the ground we were instructed to sit down on the foam seat that ran along the sides of the basket. With backs, bums and heads pressed across the side we gripped the rope handles opposite. Sitting in this position meant our heads and limbs were all fully inside the basket and we were braced in case the basket tipped over when we landed.
Two gentle bumps and we were down and remained upright. The whole flight had been so smooth and it really hadn't felt like we were moving at all. At one point we were travelling at over 8mph, but it felt like we were still and it was earth below us that was reeling past.
Climbing out of the balloon was a lot easier than climbing in. The truck driver was telephoned and informed as to where we were. Before we could deflate the balloon we had to get permission from the farmer whose field we'd landed in. The pilot told us that this is not usually a problem and the farmers generally get a bottle of whisky as a thank you. And of course, if any damage is caused, it would be paid for.
I wondered how the farmer would feel being woken up at 7.30am on a Sunday morning by someone requesting permission to deflate a large balloon in his field, but then thought, 'it's a farmer, he'll be up anyway at this time'. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of the few days in the year when he'd felt able to have a lie-in. He was in a good mood though and not only gave permission, but came out on his quad-bike to have a chat and open more gates so we'd have easier access to the road.
It took quite a long time to deflate the balloon and involved everyone tugging on a long rope to try to pull the sides down and then lots of rolling and stuffing to get it into its bag. The balloon and basket were loaded onto the trailer and we followed it out to the roadside where chamagne was served as we waited for the minibus to arrive to take us back to Tissington.
The half glass of champagne was quite nice, but felt like a bit of a contrived attempt at being classy. And at this time in the morning and after being up so long, I would have preferred a cup of coffee and an egg butty.
We were presented with certificates and looked at a series of photos on the laptop. A camera had been strung from the balloon taking photos of us all as we floated about. We could purchase the 30+ photos for £15, but as they were all pretty much the same, one would have been enough. £15 seemed quite a lot for what was effectively the same photo, so I didn't bother. If I could've bought one or two for a reduced price I'd definitely have done so as it would have been nice to have a picture of us all inside the balloon.
The minibus arrived and we were soon back in Tissington where I made coffee and egg butties in the back of the van.
Was it worth the wait?
Yes, definitely. The whole experience was even better than I thought it would be and we got a perfect day for it.
Would I do it again?
Probably not. Partly because it's expensive, but mainly because of all the hassle of having to keep so many weekends free; having to stay up to make the phone call; finding out it's cancelled; having to book again, and so on. I don't blame Virgin for this (and I'm very glad they take safety seriously and also try to ensure that the flight is enjoyable by only going on good days) as I realise no matter how powerful Richard Branson is, he has no control over the weather.
Would I recommend it?
Absolutely. But only in a place near to where you live so it's easy to get to at short notice.