Passenger Angela Patmore found her ballooning experience such a thrill, she wanted to put it into words… we’re delighted to share it with you below.
“My evening flight last Friday from Rayne Craft Centre in Essex looked to be cancelled: the wind was choppy and the distant skies behind the launch site were the colour of elephants.
Our South African pilot Conrad van Wyk was on his mobile taking last-minute weather readings, looking for a ‘window’. The mighty Virgin balloon was strung out in a red skein across the field away from the big gondola, which was resting on its side. The basket would take 16: it bore foot-holes for passengers to clamber in if we got the go-ahead. We stood about kicking our heels, fondling our digital cameras and our Virgin presentation pack binoculars, hoping and praying. It was a close-run thing between terror and longing.
I had always been scared of heights, but the research on two of my books had convinced me that challenges are good for you. They transform perception, they key up the brain, and they advance your coping skills and your courage. Kids know this natural law. They give themselves dares even if we tell them not to. The more people accept challenges, the greater their power over what they fear. The more people push the envelope, the more they live. Conversely, the more you avoid what makes you scared, the greater and more generalised that fear becomes: safety first, safety last, safety everything in between.
By flying in a hot air balloon, I knew that I was challenging our fashionable ‘stress-management’ culture, in which nervousness is generally avoided as ‘bad for one’s health’. My academic and professional work on ‘stress’ over many years had proved to me beyond doubt that this was misleading and harmful nonsense, and I regularly write and broadcast on the subject. Nervousness is normal, challenges are healthy. Taking the occasional risk is far better than dying of boredom. I had worked as a life skills trainer to the long-term unemployed, and turned their lives around by giving them challenges.
I regularly challenge myself. When I was younger and fitter I used to deal with my fear of heights by going up things like the Eiffel Tower, Dover cliffs and St Paul’s Cathedral – ascending its diagonal see-through staircases inside the dome to reach the windy little walkway on top, 225ft up. I couldn’t do these things anymore, so the Big Easy inflatable ride was ideal for me.
At the launch site another small yellow test balloon went up. It swirled and twisted but then sailed pleasingly into the distance. Our pilot marched towards us. We were ‘go’. We worked as a team to unravel our giant cocoon, unlacing it and pulling it out to its full width in the field. Two men aimed giant fans into the shrivelled skin, which began to writhe and rise. The white Virgin logo spread out across the growing red shape in the field, swelling quickly to its full towering size. Burners were aimed up into the mouth of the beast until it expanded its shape in the sky. Soon it stood ready. It was absolutely enormous.
The basket was righted. Climbing into the red leather-lined gondola was the only tricky part, but as nonagenarians have gone up in these strange craft, I thought I could manage it. My nearest companions were a father and his two young children: a little boy called Taylor, who had reached the minimum height of 4’6” for child passengers to see comfortably over the top of the basket, wore his Virgin baseball cap with pride. Actually none of us had ever ballooned before, so we were all virgins, children and adults alike.
Friends stood in the field watching and waving. Two guy-ropes attached the basket to a vehicle as the burners fired noisily above our heads: yellow flame shooting into the tremendous red skin that would bear us away. I leaned over the waist-height basket rim and watched the ground, waiting for the moment we left it, but as the guy-ropes dropped away the launch was so gentle, so smooth, that one hardly noticed we were ascending at all. The field with my friends in it seemed gradually to distance itself from the gondola, as though this were the most natural thing in the world. And suddenly there they all were on the ground, and here we all were aloft.
As we steadily gained height I felt an unusual sense of satisfaction at being able to see further and further in the distance without any effort on my part at all. Normally you have to climb for this. Yonder were the buildings and cars, getting smaller and less significant. Yonder were the fields, receding into their patchwork of glorious English countryside. Yonder were the far skies and the soft blue horizon. Although we were looking out from 1,500 to 2,000 feet, Virgin balloons can fly up to 5,000 feet, depending on prevailing airspace restrictions.
This was not like flying in a plane at all. No terrifying low rumble of engines. No deafening climax of rattling that makes you feel the fusillade and cabin must surely shake to pieces. No unnerving sense of lift-off when your ears pop and your feet face up into the unknown. No, this was different, just as riding on a motorbike is quite unlike riding in a car. You are among the elements. Apart from the occasional blast from the burners, our flight was silent. It was dreamlike. It was graceful, like being lifted on angels’ wings. And unlike being in a glider, there was no view restriction: the panorama was all ours.
Everyone was searching for familiar landmarks. Over there was a field of tiny white blobs that were apparently sheep. They scattered slowly in an organised way, like one creature breaking into parts. Here was a green William Morris wallpaper of treetops fused in an ornate pattern. Down there was a small white set of shoulders advancing in a field ahead of two ants with tails – someone was evidently exercising his black dogs. Interestingly, dog barks are one of the few sounds that carried up to the basket. Over there I spotted something I could orientate myself by: Gosfield Lake near my home, lined with washes from water skiers. A row of cottages dotted along a grey snake, with tiny motors travelling along it. And over there were our villages, our homes, spread out like an illustrated map.
To my surprise I was quite fearless. I leaned out to watch tiny gulls flying far beneath us. So that’s how they look if you’re God. In the distance another balloon floated gently above the horizon. ‘Will we collide, do you think?’ queried one passenger. Of course not. It was travelling on the same wind as we were, and in the same direction, like everybody ageing at the same rate. Young Taylor in his baseball cap was looking up at his father, who was saying: ‘I’m so proud of you, lad’. They were discussing their next dare – maybe Taylor would fancy water-skiing.
After an hour that seemed to pass unnoticed, Pilot van Wyk radioed the recovery team that was coming to pick us up. Ballooning is something of a mystery in that passengers aren’t sure exactly where they will land, yet we felt quite cool and casual about it. These pilots know all the fields and all the farmers, and they avoid the tiny percentage that don’t like balloons as well as animals that don’t understand giant sky things coming after them from the clouds.
We were going to put down on a grassy strip alongside a field of wheat stubble. We’d been warned that sometimes the balloon can tip or drag the gondola sideways, and told that this was perfectly normal. We were simply to sit down on the safe seats provided and hold onto the rope handles, and wait till we came to a stop before climbing out. Apparently some passengers so enjoy the frisson of this part that they ask for an encore. But none of this happened to us. As I sat down inside the basket I could see the approaching field through a foot-hole, and gradually the field became grass, and the grass became blades, and the only difference between not having landed and having landed was that we were completely still. A baby would not have awoken on our touchdown.
I can honestly say that despite my lifelong fear of heights and my accustomed dislike of airline flying, I was never for one moment anxious beneath that balloon. I was lifted, I was carried along, I floated and I was placed softly in a farmer’s field. Once down I was accepted and treated like a ‘regular flyer’: I helped with all the other passengers to deflate and fold the roiling balloon skin, to press it into its long skein shape, to tie its laces and roll it back safely into its bag to be winched on the trailer ready for the next flight.
And as we stood in the gloaming sipping our celebratory champagne prior to being driven back to the launch point, we were talking, laughing, reflecting on what it had been like to get above ourselves. We all had a new use for the over-used word ‘beautiful’.
I can tell you – it felt very good indeed.”