Balloon Stories: Background
In 1965 Don Cameron was building his first hot air balloon in his garage in Compton Dando, near Keynsham while I was less gainfully employed visiting my physics master’s daughter in the same village. Don had studied aeronautical engineering at Cornell in the States just as the American Marines were looking for an airborne observation platform which led to the development of the hot air balloon that we see today. He went on to form the eponymous “Cameron Balloons” in Bristol in 1971 and is still running what is now the biggest balloon company in the world.
After a couple of years cycling three or four times a week to Compton Dando and back to my home in Midsomer Norton, a round trip of some 20 miles, I fell off my bike one dark night. This hurt and I soon found that there were girls closer to home and some even within walking distance. I went on to fail my A levels spectacularly, join the Royal Air Force as a navigator, teach at the RAF’s School of Survival followed by training cabin and air crew for British Caledonian. BCal “merged” with British Airways and luckily I was already lined up for a job with the Civil Aviation Authority at Gatwick in West Sussex. That brings us up to 1988 and it was another few years before I came across Don and ballooning again.
The Civil Aviation Authority regulates aviation in the UK, both commercial and recreational. On my first day I was introduced to a chap who was working on a new set of rules for commercial ballooning, including a new commercial balloon pilot’s licence. My new boss said that the work was just about complete and that I would have little to do with ballooning. However, after a few months, there was obviously still a fair amount of work to be done and it was decided that I should get a balloon licence.
I was lucky to find an excellent instructor called Brian Smith and I spent a very enjoyable summer learning to fly a balloon. Brian lived just a short walk from the Cricketers Arms in Wisborough Green, so most trips were debriefed in the pub and I learned as much about ballooning from his fund of stories as I did from actually flying. I also discovered very quickly that ballooning is infectious – no two trips are the same and just when you think you’ve got it sorted out, some new challenge comes along – and has done on occasion ever since. Anyway, thanks to Brian I got my private pilot’s licence at the end of the summer, which allowed me to fly myself and friends or anyone else as long as they didn’t pay for the privilege.
I went on to get a commercial licence and flew passenger balloons for more than twenty years – the last ten of those from Leeds Castle and the Hop Farm in Kent. I have written down a number of stories of memorable trips over the years. I intended to intersperse these stories with notes on ballooning and how to fly one, but I think the stories may be better on their own.
If the demand is great enough, I may even go into proper print!