Saturday, 15 October 2011

Christmas presents and balloons

This post is about something that occurred more than a month ago. I have intended to post it, but up until now more immediate events have pushed it onto the back burner. The date of this event is significant because it happened on the 31st of August. Not a special date for many, but nonetheless significant.
Last Christmas, The Better Half (TBH) gave me an 'experience' gift for Christmas, this time a balloon flight. We had been trying to book a flight since April and each time we had a date that fitted into our busy schedule, the weather was always too bad on the day of the flight.  So each flight was cancelled one after the other until we started to despair that I would never get to go up. Eventually after eight months of trying, the day arrived when the weather was perfect and I was able to get my Christmas balloon ride and it was brilliant but had a strange ending.

There is an RAF air base near here called Lyneham and that is where they have been repatriating military fatalities for about four years, flying them in from the various theatres of war by Hercules aircraft where they are received with proper ceremony by their fellow servicemen . Their coffins are then transported to Oxford by road, to the Coroner’s office in Oxford where they process each arrival which are then passed on to the relatives for burial. However, RAF Lyneham has been marked for closure for some time as a part of a military spending revue.
The early part of this route passed through the small town of Wootton Bassett and although the arrivals were given military honours at the airfield, the people of Wootton Bassett started to show their own respect quite spontaneously as the hearses passed along their High Street. This entirely unofficial and genuine response, made each funeral procession something special for the bereaved, by doing something no one in officialdom had thought to do publicly.
There are a number of web pages which are all about the amazing response of the local townspeople, who created a tradition which has received a great deal of attention throughout Great Britain. To see this story, follow this link

It started quietly and entirely spontaneously by some local members of the British Legion, an organisation that supports retired members of the armed forces. Learning of the repatriation of casualties through their military connections, some of them decided to honour the dead by simply standing respectfully on the curb side of the route through their town and dipping their British Legion flags as the cars passed.

As a result of their presence, ordinary people going about their normal business in the town would also stop and show their respect too as the coffins passed through. This began during the Iraq wars and over the years grew into a regular ceremony soon becoming the central focus in Britain for showing the public’s support for the armed forces. This unique and spontaneous display of loyalty eventually attracted so much attention from the rest of the country that Wootton Bassett is to be re-named Royal Wootton Bassett by order of Her Majesty the Queen this Sunday. Link to this news story

Prior to this, on August the 31, a ceremony had been arranged, to pass the flag from Wootton Bassett to Brize Norton, to acknowledge what the townspeople had done and to mark the end of the use of Lyneham for this purpose.  New repatriations now take place at RAF Brize Norton, a few miles away near Oxford, where the show of loyalty to the military has continued by members of the public who line the procession path there.  Here is a link to this event.

My balloon flight was also set for the 31st of August and about an hour before the time of the Wootton Bassett ceremony.
TBH and I arrived in good time and as a passenger on the flight and whilst TBH watched, I was roped in along with several of the other passengers, to help get the balloon ready for the flight.
The huge envelope stretched out ready to be unfolded

Everyone helping open it out
 We spread out the envelope and then I was given some thick gloves so that I could help hold the envelope open whilst some other passengers were shown how to fill the envelope with air using a pair of petrol driven fans.  My job was to make sure the opening was wide enough for the fans to start the inflation process.
Helping to keep the envelope open
 Once the balloon had started to expand, the burner was lit and the inflation continued with hot air. I then found out why I had been given gloves, the flames were very hot and quite close to my hands.

Inside the partially inflated balloon

Getting bigger

And bigger
Soon we were able to climb into the basket and suddenly we were several dozen feet up in the air.

Lift off!

Up up and away

TBH's view
It was a marvellous experience, I felt no sense of vertigo or any other sensation, other than a serene feeling of soaring up and away.
Our shadow glides across the park
 We gently rose to a height of about three thousand feet and then started to drift away from the town. After a while, some Champagne was served and we toasted the pilot and each other as we floated along and a communal picture was taken by means of a remote controlled camera which had been hauled out on a line by the pilot.
Although the flight was silent, every now and again the pilot would ignite the burners and for the first  dozen or so times I jumped badly at the sudden roaring noise so close to my ear.
The burner is very hot as well as noisy, and although I was as far away as you can get in the basket, it still felt uncomfortably  close and I was glad I was wearing a hat

Unaware of being watched from above

The M4 motorway, west is to the right

Swindon town
Balloon flights are notoriously difficult to control where and when you come down and require fairly calm conditions, which are most favourable a short time before twilight or shortly after dawn. This was an evening fight, so the time for safe flying comes to an end a little before it is too dark and so you have to come down whilst it is still daylight wherever you happen to be. Where you come down is determined by the speed and direction of the wind. The pilot has a certain amount of control over this, but rather limited choices when he is responsible for the safety of his passengers.

Of all the suitable days for the flight I could have been on with the necessary good weather, the wind that evening was south-west-ish, so our balloon, after taking off from a local park near Swindon, unerringly set out for Lyneham and after passing over Wootton Bassett and then Lyneham Village, unable to go any further safely, our balloon came down in Lyneham airfield.
Wooten Bassett High Street, scene of the ceremony 

Getting low over Lyneham village

Our passing balloon spooked these horses
Ministry Of Defence (MOD) property is not somewhere you should enter without permission, since it normally requires some form of security checking before being allowed inside and even then you have several levels of passes handed out to identified visitors, ranging from an escorted pass, to complete clearance. As far as I know no one on board had security clearance, and although I once held a pass that let me into many secure places in the MOD, but on retirement a few years ago, I had to hand it back.
Some of the the duty staff on the airfield saw the balloon passing by and disappear from view. Thinking it would soon reappear and pass on by, they became concerned when we did not and eventually came to the conclusion that we had landed.
On these trips, the support team in a truck and a small bus follow the balloon so that the paying passengers can be collected from the landing site and bussed back to the launching site and the balloon can be loaded on the truck. The pilot keeps in contact with them and had been able to tell them where we were and so in due course, they arrived at Lyneham’s main gate.  Of course, the guards on duty there would not allow them to enter due to the normal restrictions on access to MOD property and were naturally suspicious since they did not know a balloon had landed on the airfield.
Meanwhile, a Land Rover with two RAF personnel and a patrol car with the MOD Plod (military police) had arrived at the balloon.
The pilot then explained at some length that he had not been able to go any further and had made a forced landing in the biggest open space he could reach. He then went on to ask if our two support vehicles could come in to fetch us. This took a little while and eventually the support vehicles were given passes and allowed in.
During the negotiations we, the passengers, as a part of the ballooning experience had been packing up the balloon and it was ready to be loaded on the truck by the time it arrived.
The sun was almost set by the time the support vehicles arrived, the balloon was loaded and we were escorted off MOD property by the RAF and the military police. After leaving the air base, we were then driven back to Swindon right through Wooten Bassett High Street just after the ceremony there came to an end. The streets were crowded with people leaving the ceremony and we were held up for a while as the police directed the extra traffic into some sort of order. TBH had been getting a little concerned since it was by now pitch dark and was nervous about staying in the park alone in her car, so phoning me to find out what had happened and get an ETA for my return, went off to Sainsbury’s, a local supermarket and had a coffee. By the time our bus had arrived back at the park, she had returned and I was able to tell her all about the flight.

By landing in Lyneham I had followed the exact route that each of the casualties had taken whenever there was repatriation. Any other day, or landing anywhere else and going through Wooten Bassett it would have seemed quite normal but it made me feel rather uncomfortable on that special day, particularly since there were still a lot of people lining the route.
So having been repatriated and returned to TBH, by which time, it was quite late, we bought some fish and chips on our way home and had a late supper.


  1. Looks like you had a great day. You'd never get me up in one of those things though.

  2. Fascinating! I'd go up in a balloon if I had to, but honestly it's not very appealing to me. I'd rather go on a tuna boat -- or maybe salmon fishing up in Alaska.

  3. Lovely to hear all about your adventure again, snafu! No pun intended, but your photos are out of this world. I love the one of the tractor,and especially of the horses!

  4. absolutely wonderful photos.... The story of Royal Wootton Bassett has moved me terribly. The goodness of people has been repaid just a tiny bit by the Queen's title

  5. This is one of my planned forthcoming adventures, Snafu, so it will be interesting to compare experiences. Wow, I never knew the story of Royal Wooton Bassett...there is such incredible capacity for goodness in people. x