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`Ballooning, sir? You look awful'

"Been ballooning again, sir? You look awful." Hardly the sentiments you would expect from pupils, but not unusual for Richard Riley, senior tutor at a Birmingham grant-maintained school.

For he has a passion for hot air ballooning, matched only by his enthusiasm for the 1,000-pupil school where he teaches PE and geography. And when he is not at Small Heath school, he is flying - either in his own balloon or as a pilot for the Virgin Airship and Balloon Company. "I get a buzz every time I go near a balloon. It is the closest thing to flying naturally because you are at the mercy of the wind all of the time," he says.

Comments on his appearance probably follow a weekend in which he has risen at 4 am, flown a couple of hours later, snatched a few hours' sleep in the middle of the day before flying in the evening, re-fuelling and getting to bed after midnight.

He has managed to combine school and hobby by flying for Philips, promoting an electricity project for schools. "I have also found that it has helped me in teaching map-reading and about the weather. Because I have this love of ballooning, that enthusiasm spills over into the geography I teach."

Wife Maxine, acting deputy head at Lee Bank primary in Birmingham, accompanies him as crew.

Crewing for Mr Riley at a balloon festival in Northampton was Liz Nicholson, senior lab technician at Brideley Moore High School, Redditch. "I suffer from vertigo, but get me near a balloon and I would fly any time," she said.

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