Your Questions Answered?

What is the Balloon club all about?

The club was started on 12 November 1978 with the aim of making hot air ballooning accessible to 'ordinary' people who would not otherwise be able to afford what is usually a very expensive and exclusive pursuit. The members own and run the club. Back to top

How can it afford to do that?

Each member pays an annual subscription, currently £295.00 per year (less than £25.00 per month). This entitles them to a minimum of 24 slots in the year when the club could meet (dependent on weather) and go flying. At any of these outings a crew member may get the opportunity to fly.

The club also earns money by appearing at galas and fetes. These shows, as we call them, are fee paying and provide a substantial contribution to our income. Back to top

When can I go out?

Every four months a commitment sheet is circulated to all active members and on it you can put your name down for a minimum of 8 Saturdays or Sundays for that four-month period. During summer months you can also indicate which weekday evenings you may be available for flying. All the requests are collated and a rota drawn up for every weekend and then sent out to members. If your name is not included in the next issue it is because your application came too late. You are still likely to get flying opportunities for that period though because new members usually get asked first if someone needs a replacement.

The ideal flying conditions are usually first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Winds are calmer and conditions are safer. That usually means meeting sometime between 06.00 and 08.00 in the morning depending on the time of year, or early in the evening in summer months (18.00-18.30). Back to top

How do we actually get together?

We usually meet near Ripley. The night before an outing the pilot of the day will decide whether it is likely to be safe and fit to fly, and notify the telephonist for the next day, who will pass the message on to the rest of the crew. The telephonist is simply one of the crew who is allocated the job for that day. So if you are on the crew you should receive a phone call, usually no later than 19.30, with the arrangements for the next day.

If you find yourself at any time unable to fulfil your commitment then it is your responsibility to find a replacement from the other members and to notify the telephonist well in advance. If you are the telephonist and get a replacement, you must notify everyone on the rota for that day, including both pilots. You should also inform the replacement telephonist of any changes to the rota for that day. Back to top

Who decides who flies?

When you join the club you are given a crew card. The crew card is a record of your flights and crewings (a crewing is when you help inflate and launch the balloon). Each crewing will be recorded on the card and passengers will be selected each time from the crew of the day, based on who has the most crewings. The rule is "No card - No flight!" So make sure you have it with you at all club outings. After a flight you have a maximum of 4 crewings deleted. Back to top

Could I get a flight for someone else?

Usually no, or at least not really. The club's licensing and insurance only allows us to involve club members and never fee-paying passengers (to allow for that we would need an air operators' licence so there is no point asking if a flight can be bought). However the rules do allow us to fly immediate family and close friends, within reason. To do so you have to accumulate 5 crewings on the back of your crew card to use against their flight. It is usual for you to fly with your guest so you will also need 4 crewings for yourself (on the back of your card), along with prior approval from the rest of the crew and the pilot. Back to top

What is involved in launching a balloon?

The rig is made up of a basket, the envelope (that is the material which most people think of as 'the balloon'), the burners, and the propane gas cylinders which are secured inside the basket. To launch, the rig has to be assembled very carefully and correctly (for safety's sake), the burners are tested to make sure everything is working OK, and the envelope is fastened to the basket by the flying wires. These are 12 steel cables which run down from the envelope and underneath the basket. Each single cable is capable of lifting and holding a fully laden basket, so with 12 we always operate well within a generous safety margin.

The envelope is then laid out flat on the ground and cold air blown into it from a fan situated at the mouth of the envelope (the basket end) until it is partially filled and approximately the correct shape. When the pilot is ready, the burners will be ignited and the air inside heated. Hot air is less dense than cold, so it rises, and gives the balloon buoyancy. The envelope lifts off the ground to its normal flying position directly above the basket. Its ascent off the ground is controlled by a crew member on the crown line. This runs from the very top of the balloon, and is long enough to reach right down to the top of the basket, where it is clipped after inflation. Back to top

This sounds like a lot to do and a lot to learn?

There is! All club members are given 'on the job' training at every launch until they (and the rest of the crew) feel confident that they can tackle the jobs properly and competently. It is vital that everyone involved knows exactly what to do and when, so we take training very seriously. Usually, throughout the winter months we have a series of training courses where different aspects of our sport are covered. This can include meteorology, map reading, navigation, radiotelephony or the safe handling of propane gas (known as 'The Propane code"). Don't worry it isn't really like going back to school, as with much of what we do in the club, we have a lot of fun and more than a few laughs. Back to top

Will I need to buy anything special?

Not really. It is essential that you wear non-flammable, long sleeved clothing to protect you from the heat of the burners. Cotton overalls are very useful. You will also need a strong pair of gloves; stout gardening gloves are ideal and reasonably inexpensive. These are to protect you from the heat of the burners and also help with handling ropes. Apart from a good pair of boots and a baseball-type cap that is it! The thing is not to wear synthetic fabric, cotton or wool is much safer. Later on, as your interest develops, you may wish to buy OS maps and a compass but these aren't essential, just nice to have. Back to top

Protect me from the heat??? That sounds dangerous!

It is potentially dangerous, yes, which is why we take safety so seriously. Landing can be bumpy, and you may find yourself with a few cuts and bruises, but these are exceptional and not usually serious. The right clothing, the right equipment, the right training and the right attitude all go to make the sport quite safe in practice!
In the 30 years or so that the club has been running we have only had 2 visits to hospital. One crew member trapped his finger in the van door, and a pilot had a bang on the head from a loose quick-release - on the ground. Neither of them had anything to do with flying as such. Not a bad record really! Back to top

Once the balloon is launched, what then?

The crew who are left on the ground (always a minimum of 2 with each retrieve vehicle) then have the job of following the balloon, or, ideally, predicting which track it will take and being slightly ahead of it. The retrieve crew, as they are called, will stay in radio contact with the pilot, but it is up to them to be there, or nearby, when they land. Back to top

How does the pilot decide which way to go?

He doesn't! Ballooning is completely at the mercy of the elements, and once in the air, will go whichever way the wind blows it. Having said that, the wind in this hemisphere goes slightly right the higher the altitude - "Right for height". Part of the skill of the pilot is in judging the wind speeds and directions and adjusting the altitude of the balloon (by putting more or less heat in the envelope) so the balloon will fly left a bit or right a bit under control. It is easier said than done though, and we can't always land exactly where we planned. Back to top

And when we've landed?

The pilot and passengers make safe all equipment, ensure that the public are safe, that property is not damaged or under threat from anything or anyone, and then pack away the kit ready to remove it from the land as soon as possible. Back to top

One has to remember that we invariably land in the country - in a field. Farmers own fields. Farmers can get very angry when a balloon lands in their field of crop or frightens their animals. We therefore avoid landing in crop or near animals if at all possible. Without the goodwill of the farming community we wouldn't be able to enjoy our sport, so we work very hard to keep relations sweet. We always follow the country code meticulously. We always find the landowner first and ask permission before taking the retrieve vehicle onto his land. To make sure we know exactly how to behave, we hold Landowners' relation's courses as part of our training program. Every club member is expected to attend at least once, preferably followed by regular refreshers. Back to top

And then?

Then the retrieve crew arrive and the basket and balloon are packed back into the van or trailer and we all go home! That is, we go back to refill the cylinders with gas - this is called 'gassing up', we check the equipment and vehicles and carry out routine care and maintenance and then we can go home and wait in gleeful anticipation until the next chance to go out and maybe fly! Back to top

Could I ever be a pilot?

Piloting a balloon requires qualifications, exams and assessments just as piloting a fixed wing aircraft does and you need to gain your PPL (Private Pilot's license) in the same way. At present we have 6 active pilots in the club who take it in turns to commit themselves to weekend rotas just like other crew members.

Training to be a pilot can take a while and is an expensive commitment, but every couple of years the opportunity arises for the club to train a club member as pilot. If applicants fulfil the criteria for selection and are considered 'suitable material', they will undergo a probationary period where their aptitude and potential will be assessed in the air. Once successfully completed, they are then designated PUTs (pilots under training) and go through a full training scheme within the club. Naturally we need a great deal of assurance from them before the club will commit itself to that degree of expense and involvement, but usually, happily, the end result is that a couple of years later, that member qualifies as a full pilot. Back to top

What else can I do if I want to get even more involved, outside the club?

There is much you can do. Ballooning is enjoyed all around the world and there are meets and festival in this country and abroad. The "Big One" is the International Balloon Fiesta at Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is held in October every year. Closer to home there are meets in various parts of the country throughout the year. The East Midlands Balloon Group (The EMBG) is a forum for enthusiasts in our region and membership is open to all. You may wish to join the national British Balloon and Airship Club (The BBAC) - there are many privileges and benefits in doing so, on top of a bi-monthly magazine.

Over the past few years many club members have attended the Northampton balloon festival held over a weekend in August. When possible we go with a balloon and entire crew for the weekend. The flying is wonderful but even just watching the inflation and take off of such a large number of balloons is overwhelming. Another treat is the Night Glow. This is when the balloons are inflated at night with the burners on full blast, lighting up the balloon like a brightly coloured bulb pasted onto the inky black background, which is a very special sight. Back to top

How will I get to know about these events?

Every month the club newsletter is published and circulated to all members, to keep everyone fully informed and involved. As well as the usual club news, any trips inside or outside the region will be advertised so anyone interested can be included. Back to top

Are there any other club events outside ballooning?

Yes, plenty. We are a very sociable and friendly club. Apart from the obvious link of ballooning we also share a sense of fun and enjoyment. Throughout the year we hold various social events for club members, family and friends. These include talks and slide shows, quiz nights, barbecues, safari supper, bowling and various outings - something for everyone hopefully. Join in - it's the old story of the more you put in, the more you get out! Back to top

Who actually runs the club?

The club holds its annual general meeting in November and at that time elects a committee of seven people to carry out the day-to-day job of organisation. The committee meets once a month and reports back to the membership through the newsletter. We are a very open, accountable organisation. In fact any decision by the committee can be challenged by any member, and with sufficient support from others, can be overturned. Committee members rotate every few years; this ensures that there is a constant inflow of new blood, new ideas, and new people. Back to top