John Sandilands



Date published: 1970s
Publisher: No idea where this was published

John was prepared to do almost anything for a story. Here he has a go at hot-air ballooning.

BY NO MEANS the least curious aspect of encountering a balloonist is that you find yourself asking first about the method of landing rather than the problems of getting thirty thousand cubic feet of brightly coloured nylon and a large laundry basket up into the air. Somehow, and perhaps illogically, going up in such a wayward gadget seems a lot less dodgy than the prospect of coming down.

I put the matter to a man called Bob White of the London Ballooning Club while he was preparing a launch, expecting an impressive list of technicalities, although he was actually hunting for a safety pin to hook a wire to the basket at the time. “Well, you don’t exactly land,” he explained cheerfully. “You have a sort of controlled accident. A lot of the art of ballooning is in choosing where to have it!”

I was prepared to dismiss this information as a piece of jolly ballooning humour of the kind favoured by the club members, who happily describe themselves as “balloonatics”, but that was before I spent a day with a multi-coloured monster called “London Pride.” When I was introduced to “London Pride” she was curled up in her basket like a fat old tabby, a comfortable wodge of striped fabric looking about as unsuitable for air travel as a patchwork eiderdown. Nobody would have suspected her of the devilish conduct she was later to display on nothing more intoxicating than a blast of hot air.

We began the day by packing balloon, basket and several large containers of propane gas into a long trailer for the journey from the club’s headquarters at Dunstable Downs to a garden fete at Bristol. A balloon launch, I discovered, is much in demand at such affairs and a large crowd had assembled by the time we arrived. The first job was to drive them back off the launching pad, an expanse of grass behind the hoop-la stalls, because human nature being what it is people often have an irresistible urge to stick things in balloons and it is a pastime that already has enough hazards.

There was, for example, the matter of thermals. Everybody was asked, over the creaky loudspeaker, to keep a sharp look- out for thermals and we all peered about dutifully until one of the balloonists remembered to explain what a thermal was. It turned out to be one of those sudden winds that send ice-cream papers flying on the beach on hot days and are actually caused by the uneven heating of the earth by the sun. The arrival of a thermal at precisely the moment a balloon is making its lift-off is one of a balloonist’s particular nightmares.

There are others—simply preparing for flight, for a start. London Pride is a hot-air balloon, which means to say that she is just a large envelope into which a stream of heated gas is blown continuously like a hot breath, as distinct from a hydrogen balloon which is filled and then sealed but at a cost of several hundred pounds for each flight. It followed that London Pride had to be laid out along the grass in a long, wrinkly strip and huffed into life, exactly like a monstrous version of the kind of balloon you buy at Woolworth’s.

The difference was that London Pride stretched some forty feet from crown to basket and took a great deal of man- handling, even in repose. It isn’t merely by chance that if you attend a balloon you are described as “crew”, even if you never leave the ground—a small reward though for the amount of lugging and tugging involved. Yet another hazard of ballooning, it emerged, is actually getting a flight. London Pride is owned by an eleven-strong syndicate of the London Ballooning Club who got together to raise more than £3,000 to buy her in America, almost the only place to find a balloon five years ago when the Club was formed.

The syndicate, an otherwise sane collection of mainly professional men, have to take it strictly in turn to become airborne and put together the twelve hours flying time necessary to acquire the licence needed to captain a balloon. The Board of Trade, astoundingly, have an official Inspector of Balloons and he solemnly goes aloft to test each aspiring balloonatic just like a driving examiner.

The driver on this occasion was a tall, bespectacled, pipe smoking gentleman in Public Relations, called Tim Godfrey, who already held a licence and he was to be accompanied by a learner with another two hours flying time to go before his chance to qualify as what must surely be thought of as a fully- blown balloonist. I had half expected that balloon-men invariably took off in a sort of Jules Verne set of houndstooth cape and deer-stalker, possibly with goggles, but London Pride’s complement wore anoraks and slacks with just the addition of a motor-cycling bone-dome and a pair of industrial gloves apiece as a concession to the perils of flying away in a laundry basket.

Godfrey completed the casual air of what was, after all, a pretty extraordinary undertaking, by igniting the gas burners with the same match he had just used to re-light his pipe. The burners, when turned on to full power, produce a terrifying roar and project jets of heat in the manner of a flame-thrower. It wasn’t easy to see how they were to be directed into the deflated interior of London Pride but the answer was supplied again by Bob White, who is a highly successful company director at those times when he has, as it were, his feet on the ground. “It’s my turn to be Cremation Charlie,” he announced and disappeared inside the balloon. His presence, like a tent- pole, held open the large aperture at its base and Tim Godfrey aimed satanic blasts past him into the cavern beyond.

The spectacle of London Pride inflating was something to behold. At first there was a series of small bumps and wriggles beneath the fabric, like a family of puppies fighting under a blanket. The bumps grew into vast blisters and continued to swell until, to my immense relief, Bob White was able to abandon his suicidal role and step forth to a round of applause from the crowd. The balloon, I discovered, is made from nylon treated to be heat-resistant but a method of heat- proofing company directors, of course, has yet to be found.

London Pride had now grown to immense proportions, fat and buoyant and seemingly hysterically anxious to leave the ground. It was a crucial moment in the operation as she reared, fully-inflated, above the basket, causing the wires to groan and strain and bringing a flock of people, casting anxious glances over their shoulders in fear of thermals, hurrying forward to hold her down. We crowded around, hanging grimly on to the basket as it hopped up and down impatiently and I was surprised to notice that the helper next to me was actually a passing newsvendor who was grabbing ineffectually at the belt of Tim Godfrey’s trousers while grasping a bundle of Bristol evening newspapers under his other arm.

In this wild confusion the final preparations were made for the take-off, which consisted of passing the balloonatics a rather inadequate-looking road map and two cans of beer for sustenance during the flight. A can-opener was also chucked in as something of an afterthought. Ballooning, it was possible to reflect even while removing a newsvendor’s thumb from my eye, has little in common with the Space Age.

At last a direct alignment of balloon and basket decided her captain that the moment had arrived and he bawled at the mob around him to let her rise. She did so with a final roar of her burners that sounded suspiciously like a sigh of relief and bounded off with the prevailing wind narrowly missing a nearby clump of trees. Earthbound, we dusted our hands and congratulated each other but there was suddenly a concerted dash by all those in the ballooning party to set off in pursuit by car. Ballooning is a very literal sport, you are forced to decide, and once a balloon has been released on a journey somebody is obliged to go and fetch it back. I started out with Bob White in the car pulling London Pride’s trailer, for this very purpose, and we were accompanied by an apprentice lady balloonist acting as navigator.

At first we dashed rather aimlessly about a series of country lanes craning upwards for a sight of the balloon while White explained that the particular dread of those engaged on balloon-retrieving duties was meeting head-on with another and a pair of industrial gloves apiece as a concession to the perils of flying away in a laundry basket. In fact, though, a certain amount of science was involved. London Pride had enough gas to stay aloft for forty-five minutes. She would proceed in the same direction and at roughly the same speed as the wind so that reaching her approximate landing point was a matter of choosing roads leading to the same spot besides, hopefully, keeping her In

Up aloft, I was told, the aviators had rather less control of their fate. A hot-air balloon has a line controlled from the basket which can be used to release some heat and so decrease height, another line to deflate the top panel for a more rapid descent. Thereafter, by way of brakes, there is merely a heavy rope to be thrown over the side and which, with any luck, drags along the ground and brings the whole contraption to a halt. A particularly nasty possibility is that up-draughts will drive the balloon ever higher until the gas runs out, at which point she returns to earth like a brick.

Considerations like these have led to a standard insurance cover of £50,000 for every flight but, as it turned out, this particular Odyssey of London Pride was to produce some fresh food for insurance man’s thought. We were neck-and-neck with her when she began to come down over some pleasant rural countryside approaching the Severn. For a moment it looked as though she would land neatly in a peaceful meadow and I was about to reproach Bob White for his description of balloon-flight as an accident looking for somewhere to happen. At which point London Pride accelerated swiftly down- wards and ploughed a fifty yard fairway through a field of standing corn with her basket before touching an overhead power cable with her crest. There was a cataclysmic blue flash and her colourful magnificence subsided abruptly to Mother Earth.

It is astonishing how many people assemble from a seemingly deserted stretch of the West Country when a balloon strikes a power cable while decimating a cornfield. Besides, after a very short pause, an angry farmer and several technicians from the local Electricity Board, there was suddenly a whole range of those people who normally gather around a city incident involving a bicyclist and a bus. There was even the inevitable expert, a splendid old gentleman who turned out to have commanded an airship in the First World War and who was able to offer invaluable advice as London Pride was earned,  (?)sadly deflated, from the scene of the disgrace.

Tim Godfrey and his pupil, too, were retrieved from the cornfield, still quite intact and showing remarkable phlegm even when a man from the Electricity Board told them that they had cut off the entire power supply of the Severn Bridge. I was assured that if a sewing machine could be found to repair the rent in London Pride I could look forward confidently to the promised maiden flight on the morrow.

And, of course, not all balloon flights end in such a manner nor would it entirely mar the pleasures of ballooning if they did. There is nothing to compare with the feeling of elation you enjoy as you soar towards the clouds and feel the grip of the breeze as you rotate in almost total silence and peace above the patchwork of the fields, an occasional pigeon for company as you revel in man’s very first form of flight. You can even have pleasant chats with passers-by as you are descending, which is something you never enjoy in a Jumbo Jet.

Or so I was assured by Roy Giles, the photographer who accompanied me and made the flight instead. As far as I’m concerned you need only one real qualification for becoming a balloonatic. You have to be slightly out of your head.


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List of John Sandilands articles

John Sandilands

John Sandilands Articles

  1. Obituary, March 2004 >>
  2. Introduction to Articles >>
  3. Article2 >>
  4. When the cure is sun, sea and mud >>
  5. Interview with Ava Gardner >>
  6. Interview with Dustin Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, 1968 >>
  7. Fiji >>
  8. Patrick Moore >>
  9. Mr Pastry >>
  10. Interview with Jane Fonda >>
  11. letters to and from John to editors >>
  12. Ballooning >>
  13. The Toad Cross Code >>
  14. Peter Sellers; that is the problem >>
  15. In bed with John Sandilands plus Jilly Cooper, Zandra Rhodes and Peter Cook >>
  16. Know the Type >>
  17. Animal poems >>
  18. The Toad Cross Code >>
  19. Albert and the Jaguars >>
  20. Herogram >>