Champagne hot air ballooning over Sussex

PUBLISHED: 12:24 16 July 2013 | UPDATED: 12:24 16 July 2013

Photo by Matt Evans/PPL

Photo by Matt Evans/PPL

Matt Evans/PPL

Barry Pickthall lets the tether line go, on a champagne ride from the British School of Ballooning’s launch site at Petworth, and soon found that champagne and hot air can be a heady mix

Two surprises await those taking a hot air balloon celebratory flight over Sussex. The first is the great and the good who have done the very same thing, and in fact may be doing it at the same time as you. The second is not knowing where on earth you’re going to land.

Among the celebrities to have had a go are Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd, Phil Collins and his band Genesis, rugby star Lawrence Dallaglio and even Sir Paul McCartney. The day we flew, a mysterious Russian oligarch was due to take a private flight in a 3-man balloon at the same time – we were warned not to take photographs. Mercifully, his entourage were embroiled in traffic around Guildford, meaning that two lucky ground crew gained an unexpected flight at his expense.

Being completely at the mercy of the wind, which you undoubtedly are, even the pilot has no clear idea of where you might land. We ended up on an MOD shooting range at Longmore military camp, close to the A3. Thankfully, by the time we arrived it was dusk, so the gunners had gone in for their tea, leaving behind a huge stash of spent rifle shells in their wake. We were told that the furthest anyone has travelled in the hour long flight from Petworth is, (quite impressively), Winchester.

The first balloon flight is credited to Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers, who diced with death by making a hydrogen balloon back in 1783. They flew from Champ de Mars – now the site of the Eiffel Tower – northwards on the air currents for 45 minutes, pursued by chasers on horseback, and landed 31 miles away, at the village of Gonesse. There they were greeted by terrified peasants, who attacked the balloon with pitchforks and knives, which destroyed it. Mercifully for all concerned, Walter Raleigh’s discovery of tobacco had yet to reach the French proletariat, for any Gauloises chomping Frenchman would surely have sparked a major catastrophe.

The Chinese, as we all know, first invented fire power, and records show that they used unmanned hot air balloons made from rice paper as airborne lanterns for military signaling, from as early as 220AD. Reassuringly, the balloons and 12-man baskets used by the British School of Ballooning are far more modern affairs, produced by Cameron Balloons, the world’s best known manufacturer, based in Bristol and now celebrating their 40th anniversary.

Hot air balloons are totally wind dependent for their direction, but it is surprising just how much latitude pilots have in steering them. Just a few hundred feet in altitude can change everything, as you move up or down the layers of wind. Some years ago, we treated my father to a balloon ride to mark his 80th birthday, and with children watching through the sunroof, we tracked his course around the Sussex countryside. First, the balloon hitched a ride south towards the South Downs, then altered altitude to sail east, before almost completing the triangle by heading back to Petworth.

For our flight, the wind stream was generally from the east, pushing us west above Midhurst and Petersfield. Apart from the views, the most stunning aspect of flying under hot air is the quietness of it all – except, that is, when the pilot ignites the burner! It is so quiet in fact that garden conversations can be heard clearly, even when 500ft aloft.

The best tip I can offer is to carry a hat – the heat reflected from the burner is so intense that it really warms the top of your head. The balloon people don’t tell you this before the flight, but our pilot laughingly offered to hire us caps at a cost of £15 a head.

A hat, preferably a hard one, can also come in handy for the landing.. Overhead power cables hindered our return to ground at one site, and a recalcitrant caretaker at a Country school who threatened to park his Land Rover to block access for our accompanying mini-bus and trailer to the playing fields, stalled another descent.

Our pilot finally chose a live-round military firing range at the MOD Longmore camp, and slowed our progress by aiming for a gorse tree, which the basket hit with full force, before landing with a bump in the sand dunes. It was then a case of all hands on deck to gather in the balloon, fold it and pack it away in time for the ground crew to arrive and load the trailer.

The landing brought an audible sigh of relief from all of us crouching with our hands on our heads in the basket, and the celebratory bottle of bubbly cracked open after the balloon had been packed away was certainly quaffed with glee. We had survived a memorable flight, and it’s an experience that I would definitely recommend.

British School of Ballooning – (01428 707307; www.hotair.co.uk)

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