That floating feeling

I blogged some while ago about my forthcoming hot air balloon ride – cancelled twice last year because the weather conditions weren’t right. Well, this week I did it, and the conditions were perfect! I’d hoped to take off from Earlham Park next door to the University of East Anglia, as I really wanted to get a bird’s eye view of my home city of Norwich. But with the wind blowing from the west, balloon pilot Robert Keron said we wouldn’t get so long in the air, and it would be difficult retrieving the balloon if it landed in Cantley Marshes.

Inside the balloon as it's inflated by cold air fansSo we took off instead from the backup launch site at Old Buckenham airfield, some 14 miles south-west of Norwich. The sun was just peeking over the horizon as I arrived, and already there were skylarks up above. I tried to imagine what it must have been like here between 1943 and 1945, when Old Buckenham was home to the B24 Liberators of the US 8th Air Force’s 453rd Bombardment Group. Hollywood movie stars James Stewart and Walter Matthau both flew on bombing raids over Germany from here.

I’ve done a few balloon flights before, but the most recent was in 1990, when I took part in the first ever hot air balloon meeting in what was still Soviet Russia. It made for some interesting and amusing experiences, recounted in my latest book One of our Balloons is Missing. More to the point, it was fascinating to see how the technology of what is still essentially a Nylon bag and a laundry basket had improved over the years.

Turning on the burnersBack then, I had to take off my shoes to avoid damaging the fabric of the envelope in order to get a dramatic photograph taken from inside a partially inflated balloon, looking outwards. This week, there was no question that my walking with shoes still on might damage the modern siliconised Nylon fabric. The basket was a good deal bigger than ones I’d flown in before, taking 16 passengers and the pilot. The passengers were grouped four to each of four compartments, equipped with a soft bench and padding to make the landings a little less lumpy. Luxury indeed!

Balloon shadowOnce the cold air fans had partially inflated the balloon, the burners did the rest, and in no time we were clambering aboard. As we floated aloft, we quickly appreciated the way the wind picked up as we climbed – the result of something called a nocturnal jet, where cold air inversion layers had very little wind at ground level, but moving more quickly just a few hundred feet up.

When the burners weren’t roaring, you could really appreciate the quiet, drifting serenely across the countryside. We saw hares, deer and a fox, all oblivious to us as we passed overhead. While Norwich was hiding tantalisingly in a distant haze, we could make out the two towers of Wymondham Abbey, and ahead of us, we could see the sun reflecting off the North Sea. We could even make out the distinct outline of Sizewell power station on the coast some 25 miles away.

All too soon, it seemed, our pilot was spying out a landing site. He did a magnificent job of parking it in the corner of a field right next to a junction of small roads just south of the village of Hardwick. In total, we covered some 10 miles in an hour of flying. Passengers helped the crew roll the vast red envelope back into its storage bag, and then we enjoyed a celebratory glass of champagne. And I suppose as I was standing on the public highway whilst quaffing my bubbly, I might have been ever so slightly breaking the law…

A hot air balloon flight makes a brilliant gift for someone, or a means of celebrating something special. Virgin Balloons fly from locations all over the UK. More info at www.virginballoonflights.co.uk.

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