For my mums 60th birthday in 2015 I booked us on a hot air balloon. Unfortunately due to the weather the flight was postponed. So I rescheduled another flight. Postponed again. Unfortunately this happened approximately 10 times due to the deceiving weather and now it’s June 2016. My voucher was soon to expire and I’d almost given up hope. I’d received a text on Monday lunchtime there were 2 spaces remaining on that evenings flight, which was guaranteed to fly, so I thought it’s now or never. I called my mum, asked her if she was available, she said yes, I replied to the text and we were booked on. At 2 o clock I rang the flight confirmation line which gave me the launch pad details. There are 7 different Kent locations in total. I jotted the details, Mercure hotel in Maidstone to be there by 7pm.
It was quite a mad rush getting home from work, saying hello and goodbye to the kids, quickly gobbling down a sandwich and getting changed. Then I had to collect my mum from the train station and head straight to the launch site, which was about a 30 minute drive from my house.
We arrived at the hotel and saw a signpost for outdoor activities so we followed it round. I spotted the spitfire minibus and knew that’s where we were to meet.
We handed over our vouchers, were ticked off the list and were given a safety card to read of dos and don’ts
The balloon took longer to prepare than I imagined. I thought it would inflate quite quickly like a bouncy castle but no. It had to be filled with cold air from noisy petrol powered fans. Then topped up with hot air from the even noisier burners. This took a while, it’s great to see though. The balloon was so much bigger than expected. Once ready we were given our allocated spaces. The basket was divided into 5 compartments, 1 in the middle for the pilot and the remaining 4 for the passengers. There were 16 passengers in total. To get in and out of the basket there are square holes in the side, these are to be used as a ladder. I was the youngest person on the flight and didn’t find it that easy to climb in, but there was help at hand if needed.
Once on board we practiced our landing position. Which was to sit down on the padded bench inside the compartment, shoulder to shoulder and hold onto the rope in front. We were ready to go. The burners flames were roaring, the ropes were untied and we were off, floating into the sky. It’s quite a strange feeling as there isn’t really any effect on the body. It didn’t make my tummy somersault, there was no G force. It was just a gentle rise into the air. If you shut your eyes you wouldn’t even know you were moving. There was no sensation at all. What surprised me was the speed at which we rose, and how everything looked so small so quickly. The view is like looking out from an airplane window. It’s like being a giant looking over a tiny lifelike train set.
So many people ask wasn’t you scared. But the answer is no. I know it’s completely insane to be up so high in the sky and so vulnerable in just a basket and a balloon full of hot air but it never occurred to me that I wasn’t safe. The pilot talked us through the whole experience and he was such a funny and friendly man I guess everyone felt at ease. It didn’t appear that anyone was at all anxious. It’s so quiet, tranquil, serene and literally heavenly up in the sky you can’t help but feel at peace.
You may or may not know that you can’t steer a hot air balloon. Only the height can be controlled. The wind steers the balloon in the direction it chooses. So whilst up in the air Michael was radioing the crew in the minibus of his predicted landing site. He was also getting them to do certain checks to know what sort of landing we were in for too.
I think our flight lasted approximately an hour. One of my favourite moments was when we came down low to the fields to check the wind and then climbed back up again. We also brushed a tree top and some passengers were able to grab a leaf or two for a souvenir.
Whilst up in the air Michael showed us a very impressive trick, he threw a piece of grass from the floor of the basket out into the sky…………..it rose up?!? The reason it went up and not down as anticipated was because we were descending faster in the balloon than the grass was falling to the ground.
Kent ballooning have an arrangement with some Kentish farmers who have given permission for them to land in their fields, some in exchange for a bottle of champagne. Not a bad deal.
We had traveled approximately 9 miles up in the sky and we could see the spitfire van waiting for us. We were expecting a good landing. We landed in a field of sheep, after Michael had cleverly rotated the basket to fit through a gap in the trees. Metres above the floor we took our landing positions. There was a small bump, nothing violent, and then we moved slightly along the ground as the balloon settled.
We clambered out one by one alternate ends to keep the basket balanced. Getting out was equally hard, but all passengers were helping each other. Some of us hung onto the basket to keep it weighed down whilst the others exited the basket.
Once everyone was out, the basket was put onto the 4×4 and the deflated balloon needed to be packed up. We all took part in packing it away. The balloon, I believe, is worth £40,000 and is sponsored by spitfire. The basket is worth another £20,000.
We all helped to roll the air out while Michael rugby tackled the balloon and packed it into a narrow strip. We all then grabbed a part and helped lug it into the basket. It’s a lot lot heavier than expected.
Once the balloon was packed up we toasted our successful flight with a glass of champagne, or spitfire. It’s actually tradition to do this as it was thought that travelling through the sky was alien back in the day so the pilot carried champagne to prove he was human.
Once refreshed we got into the mini bus and travelled back to the launch site. Here we were presented with our certificates. I was very proud of my mum, as she’s not good with heights. I was proud that we’d actually managed to get up in the sky after almost a year of failed attempts. But it was worth it. Obviously this is an activity that is weather permitting because people’s safety is paramount. The weather is studied to know if it’s safe and to know where the best sites are to launch and land.
This was an amazing experience and it’s something I think everyone should do in their lifetime. It’s a real bucket list thing to do and I’ve done it! I love the Kent countryside. It’s beautiful, it’s my home and it really is the garden of England and I’ve been lucky enough to get a birds eye view of it.