Mr. R finally cashed in on his birthday present and the two of us went on a hot air balloon ride last weekend.
Saturday morning began dull and grey, but our afternoon flight was still going to go ahead. The location had changed to Henley-on-Thames, though, because of the wind direction. Anyway, we set off, got to the car park, met the Virgin mini-bus and followed it to the (unmarked) airfield nearby.
Once there, participants and spectators were both invited to assist in the inflating of the giant (100 feet +) red balloon. What a marvellous idea! Boy, did it need many hands to make light work. Mr.R gallantly helped while a roaring fan blew air into the balloon. At the other end, several people had to provide gravity – ensuring that the balloon filled up gradually and evenly. It was great fun to watch and I got some good pictures.
Once the balloon was ‘full’, we all scrambled into a wicker basket that looked pretty sturdy. With 17 of us on board, including the pilot, it had better be!
The balloon took off and within seconds the people on the ground were tiny creatures with waving hands. By then, the sun was out and we flew over beautiful countryside with my favorite neat fields, a lake with birds skimming over it, a rowing lake and orderly English towns. The world is a much quieter and calmer place at 6000 feet and I didn’t want to leave.
But leave we had to.
Forty five minutes or so later, the pilot began looking for a place to land. That was the first we realised that they didn’t have a fixed landing spot for each flight! So we looked for fields that were not ploughed, didn’t have electricity pylons on it or cattle grazing. The field also had to be big enough for the balloon to deflate without getting entangled on brambles and hedges.
We crossed over Reading and over the M4. The pilot kept the pick-up van updated on his walkie-talkie. They were following us by road and would meet us when we land to drive us back to the airfield to pick up our cars.
On course to land, we spotted deer, horses, terrified cows and a smattering of birds. Finally, the pilot decided he had spotted a suitable field. We all took our landing positions and on 3, 2, 1 we landed with a thud. The basket skidded along the field for a few terrifying seconds, threatening to topple over with the impact. This was what a rough plane landing would be like, I thought. Except that we wouldn’t die if we toppled over; we’d just be quite crushed.
The pilot managed to steady the basket and we all sat still for a moment, nervous laughter belying the fact that we were unsure for a moment there.
Not spotting a gate, the pilot sent one of the passengers to run to the nearest house and ask for a key or find another way to let our pick-up van into the field to deflate and pack up the balloon. Said scout was handed a walkie-talkie and off he went. Several minutes later, he reported that the house was locked and there was no one home. There didn’t seem to be an alternate route either.
By this time, the pick-up van had found us. After some deliberation, the pilot decided to take off again and find another field with a gate.
Dusk was falling fast by now. We took off, happy to have a few more minutes in the sky. The pilot soon found another field and he spotted a vehicle at the edges, which was good because it meant we could get help if we wanted.
So we took our landing positions once again and held tight for the impact. Bam! This was even worse than the last time. The balloon lurched and heaved and the contents of our stomach protested rather violently. We were goners for sure, we thought.
After what seemed like an eternity,the basket came to a halt. We were intact. The pilot then said that he saw a man coming towards us – might have been the farmer. Then we heard his voice :
“Anybody gets out of that basket will get shot!”
Was he joking?
Peering out revealed an elderly man in camouflage dress and hat marching towards us. We sat quietly, letting the pilot deal with it.
Turns out that our balloon landed in the middle of a duck shoot. They had to postpone the first round because we might have scared the birds away. The farmer claimed that this had cost him a lot of money and his damage would have to be compensated.
After some discussion, we were escorted off the field by the farmer. The balloon, much to our pilot’s dismay, had to be abandoned on the field. The farmer just would not let the pilot bundle it away yet. He was asked to come back after 7:30 to pick it up. The duck shoot would be over by then.
The farmer deposited us in the car park of a nearby pub where the mini-bus was waiting for us with our silver champagne flutes. As the bubbly flowed, so did the jokes about our adventure.
We predicted the headlines : “Passengers were sitting ducks.” “Pilot gets the bill” “Farmer was quackers“
And so on.
The crew were left behind to wait for the shoot to finish after which they would pick up the balloon and head back. The pilot would drive us back to the starting point.
And so we ended a memorable adventure. At the airfield, certificates were handed out to the participants signed by the pilot and Richard Branson. It was a wonderful afternoon and an experience I’d love to repeat.