Team spirit is not just hot air

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Whether you want to be a pilot or a member of the ground crew, let your ballooning career take off. Kevin Berry reports

Aeroplanes, I have just been told, have to give way to hot-air balloons. It is part of the etiquette of the skies.

"Mind you, try telling that to a Harrier jet pilot flying over Lake Windermere," says a grinning David Court.

David is the training officer of the British Balloon and Airship Club. We are in a field next to the aviation viewing area at Manchester airport.

Hundreds of people are watching passenger planes taking off. One of the Concorde fleet is on permanent display in the aviation viewing area. It looks stunning and it will form an intriguing backdrop to the balloon activities.

Balloons are being inflated. Trainee pilots and ground crew will have the opportunity to practise tethering. Each balloon is permanently roped to three heavy four-wheel-drive vehicles and the balloons will go up for just a few feet. "Tethering covers the principles of inflating, taking off and landing," explains David. "We won't be free flying now. We fly close to dawn or dusk when the air is more stable."

Balloon pilots can train for a private or commercial pilot's licence.

Today's trainees are all striving for the private variety. They speak of the calmness of balloon flight and are looking forward to sharing it with family and friends once they have qualified.

Commercial pilots work for the companies who advertise flights to celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries. They also can turn their hand to corporate entertainment and advertising.

The training used to have to be completed within a year. If that was not possible, usually thanks to the British climate, then the trainee pilots had to start again from scratch. Now, in line with European regulations, the pilots can stretch their training over two years.

For the private pilots there are written exams in five subjects: air law, navigation, human performance and limitations (physical stress, etc), balloon systems and meteorology. Their flying time is a minimum of 16 hours spread over at least six flights. Four of them must be with a BBAC instructor and one flight must be with a Civil Aviation Authority instructor. Commercial trainees have to put in more hours and take more exams.

Trainees also have to attend a seminar on landowner relations - essential for happy ballooning says pilot Chris Heptonstall. If a farmer is in a popular flying area, your balloon may not be the first this weekend to land in his best corn field.

Then there is the ground crew and the friends and relatives of the passengers. In no time the farmer's track is clogged with cars. A balloon pilot's maps will indicate the fields to be avoided.

Anyone wanting to join a ground crew is made welcome. They are ranged all around the balloon waiting for the pilot's commands. On a flight half of the crew will stay on the ground, following the balloon in cars.

Chris Wootton is a trainee balloon pilot. Later today he hopes to have his tethering skills approved and signed off in his log book. "Hopefully I'll be qualified in three weeks. The hardest part of training is fitting in flying time around the British weather!"

David Singleton, an NQT science teacher in Blackpool, went along to a local club to video a balloon taking off. The video was for a class lesson and David is now an enthusiast. He tells me that if teachers are interested a balloon group will happily send along a crew to inflate a balloon and demonstrate tethering. All they need is a flat space, ideally the size of a soccer pitch.

Qualified crew member Steve Bass struggles with the crown line attached to the top of a balloon. He must control the line as the balloon is being inflated with two tons of hot air. It is far from easy according to everyone in the balloon world, but it is essential.

"I wanted to take the exam simply because I want the satisfaction of having the certificate," he says. "People like Virgin are always wanting qualified crew and I'll take any opportunity that comes along."

British Balloon and Airship Club website -


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