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.
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|
|Helping to keep the envelope open|
|Inside the partially inflated balloon|
|Up up and away|
|Our shadow glides across the park|
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|
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|
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.
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.