At Virgin Balloon Flights we are steeped in the history of ballooning; from the adventures of Sir Richard Branson to operating the biggest commercial ballooning business in the world, and all that’s in between. However, we’d really struggle to fly thousands of passengers each year without our hot air balloons, so we decided to take a look and see how they are made with a visit to the world’s largest hot air balloon manufacturer; Cameron Balloons in Bristol.
Cameron Balloons is a company with an long and illustrious past. Founded in 1967, the company produced the first modern hot air balloon in Western Europe, the “Bristol Belle”, and it has since gone on to produce over 8,000 hot air balloons. So, it seems only fitting that they have a museum in their foyer.
Up on the top floor of the three story factory in the centre of Bristol is where much of the magic happens. Seamstresses busily work away quadruple stitching together balloon envelopes to be sent all over the world. Apparently it takes at least a couple of years before being fully trained and judging by the highly reassuring attention to detail on show we weren’t surprised.
As we wondered through the production floor we realised we’d timed our visit pretty well too, as here’s one of our newest editions to the Virgin Balloon Flights fleet being created. The size of the “V” alone is pretty big indicator as to just how big our envelopes are, towering at 120ft when inflated.
Now whilst we love red balloons, we accept that other colours are available. Unique balloons are created every week at Cameron Balloons and so the lovely and accommodating staff have quite a colourful workplace.
If there’s one thing that balloonists know it’s that without a basket your balloon is pretty pointless, so it’s a good job the team at Cameron Balloons produce those too. Down on the ground floor wicker baskets are still hand made to each customer’s specification; hence why ours have a nice red leather around the edge and additional bench seats. It’s mechanical in a balloon factory too as they produce the inflation fans and of course the burners we use to heat the air and get airborne. The variety if skills on show is incredible.
The production of hot air balloons is as niche as it gets and retains a certain cottage industry charm, even though Cameron Balloons have customers all over the globe. As the physics of how a hot balloon works has changed little since it’s inception in the 18th Century, the incredible depth of design and engineering that goes into the creation of a hot air balloon should not be overlooked. From the design and planning phases, through to cutting and creating envelopes and producing strong flexible baskets with efficient burners, the standard of equipment has progressed beyond belief . This is due in no small part to the innovations the team at Cameron Balloons who have contributed significantly to making ballooning such as safe activity today.