Hot Air Ballooning

Enduring Terror

By Angus Watson

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I’m more afraid of falling than of heights. I can’t stand at the edge of a Tube platform. It makes me shudder if anyone else does, and angry if it’s a friend who won’t move back. Hotel balconies make me sweat. So hot air ballooning seemed like an interesting thing to try.

Driving to the launch-site through ancient West Sussex villages, I’m reminded of homo sapiens’ contentment with ground-based life for the first 160,000 years or so. Then, in 1783 a couple of French brothers persuaded Pilatre de Rozier to go up in their ‘Montgolfière’ balloon. De Rozier became the first human to fly in a aircraft. In 1785, when his balloon plummeted into the Channel, de Rozier became the first human to die in an air crash.

The most famous balloon fatality, soon to become more famous when the film’s released on 26th November, is fictional. It takes place in ‘Enduring Love’ a novel by Ian McEwen. Five men struggle to hold ropes attached to the basket of a balloon which holds a terrified boy. A gust of wind lifts balloon and men into the air. One lets go. The balloon shoots up, three more drop. One, John Logan, doesn’t. The balloon careers upwards. It’s very high when Logan’s grip fails. “Ruthless gravity” pulls him screaming to the ground, where he lands on his bottom, amongst sheep, in a field. His internal structure collapses as all bones break. He’s left with “hardly a face at all.”

Graeme and Judy ScaifeMcEwen tells me he “saw no point going up in a balloon” either while writing his book, or during filming. He was halfway through the novel when he read about a ballooning accident in Germany and got the idea for his shocking first chapter. The ensuing research into balloon deaths was enough to put him off for life.

With Logan and de Rozier firmly in mind, I nervously help Graeme Scaife (right on the left), his wife Judy (left on the left), Charlie the photographer, and 70 year-old Jim Cramp set up the hot air balloon. We four men are about to take to the crisp autumn sky, while Judy follows with the support vehicle. Another balloon, the one in the photos below, would be flying the same, as yet undecided, course. Undecided because you don’t decide where you’re going. The wind does.

Graeme has 3,500 hours flying experience. His company, the British School of Ballooning, is the UK’s biggest. It’s Jim’s first time in a balloon – the flight is a birthday present from his children. I keep reassuring him that it will be ok and he keeps assuring me that he knows it will.

I ask Graeme about ‘Enduring Love’.

“We all had a good chuckle at the beginning of that book,” Graeme shakes his head, “it was just so improbable.”

There’s an essential problem with Enduring Love’s accident that balloonists mock. The author chose to use a helium balloon, rather than a hot air balloon, and, without going into dull detail as to why, it just wouldn’t have been a helium balloon. McEwen says he knows this now, but in portraying his “macrocosm of the classic struggle between communal and selfish wishes”, he wanted to use something “elemental”. So he used helium. Artistic licence, ok? The film uses a hot air balloon.

BlastFiction and lily-liveredness aside, what are the stats? The Civil Aviation Authority says that, since 1975, out of the two million people who have been up in balloons in the UK, two have died as a result.

As a fan blasts cold air into the balloon while Jim and I hold it open, Judy Scaife points out cheerily that you’re much more likely to die driving to the launch site. Suddenly I’m hit with a rush of wind.

“Oh no! A gale!” I think. “We’re all going to die!” In fact, I’ve just stepped in front of the fan. We’re still on the ground. I’m a little jumpy.

The envelope billows and fills. Graeme blasts in hot air, and the vast red balloon rises tumescently above us.

Take OddWe cram into the tiny basket. The tether attaching us to the Land Rover is unclipped, and up we go – quickly and silently. Before I realise we’re airborne, we’re clearing trees. I see how John Logan failed to let go until it was too late.

After 20 seconds we’re very high. After 40, the sheep look like maggots on mini bridge tables. The horizon expands rapidly. Charlie snaps away merrily. My knuckles whiten from gripping the wicker basket’s sides.

High-voltage power lines are the natural enemy of the hot air balloonist. In 2001, a balloon in Savoie, France stuck a 20,000 volt line. The propane tanks exploded and six people died. In 1997 a 75-year-old woman on a birthday treat died when a balloon hit power-lines after crossing the River Humber. It’s not always power-lines, though. Brian Stevenson, a Scot, plunged 300 ft into a car-park in the Napa Valley last year in a McEwen-style rope-holding accident.

Balloon BelowThinking about how hard tarmac would seem from our current 2,000 feet up isn’t helping. The immediate problems are that we are not strapped in, the basket is made entirely of wicker and its sides come up to my hips. The floor creaks and shifts. It’s like standing behind a small fence looking over the highest cliff in the world during a minor earthquake. If I leant two feet forwards I’d tumble. And tumble and tumble and tumble and thud.

But this is no good. I want to enjoy it. I remember the words of Hannah Cameron of Cameron Balloons. Although she’s scared to go up a ladder, her “favourite place in the world is above the ground in a safe wicker basket”. John Baker, Chairman of British Balloon Museum & Library, told me that ballooning is “not a back-street Greame Scaifesport like bungee-jumping.” Each balloon and pilot is rigourously tested.

To the south are the South Downs, the Solent, and Culver Down on the Isle of Wight (a favourite teen-hood haunt of mine). To the north is London. Wow. Canary Wharf and the City are clearly visible. We can see about 40 miles in every direction. Woods, fields and villages glide underneath. I realise the oddest thing. It’s warm – because there’s no breeze. Move at the same speed as the wind, and it ceases to exist. It’s surreal. It’s October, we’re 2,500 feet up, and there’s no noise and no wind and it’s no jacket needed warm. The radio spouts and the burners blast every now and then, but mostly it’s silent.

I catch myself thinking that it’s not so bad. Then Charlie leans backwards over the edge to take a photo of me and I gibber, briefly terrified again.

Up and down we go, across West Sussex, into Surrey. Balloons can steer to a degree by changing altitude to take advantage of wind differentials, hence the up and down stuff. That’s also where a new danger comes in. In Alice Springs in 1989, 13 people were killed when a balloon going up hit one coming down… best not to think about that.

landingAfter an hour we come to a bumpy landing in a fallow field. Jim Cramp is beaming. He loved it. I’m not sure whether I did or not – but I’m ecstatic to be down. Lying in bed that night though, I realised that I’d experienced one of mankind’s truly amazing achievements that day. Something that I’d happily do again, but maybe in a bigger basket.

For flights, which resume in April 2005 after the winter break, go to www.britishschoolofballooning.com, or call 01428 707307

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd, photos Angus Watson