Step back in time, and imagine the skies without airplanes, without helicopters or spaceships. No person knew what it was like not to have two feet secured on the ground. It is only by imagining yourself in these times, can you truly appreciate the historical moment Jean-Francois Pilâtre de Rozier’s balloon graciously rose up into the air with a bewildered sheep, duck and cockerel in the basket. Not long after, Pilâtre de Rozier took to the sky once more with Francois Laurent d’Arlandes in the first manned hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers, a paper-lined cloth balloon that many modern balloon designs are based on today. This hot air balloon flight was the beginning of aviation, an experiment which set the course for the next 200 years of the human fascination with flying. But why, all these later, is it popular to go hot air ballooning? I took to the skies with Virgin Balloon Flights, to experience the breath-taking art of flying in one of their magnificent red balloons for myself.
Champagne & Balloons – The Virgin Flight Experience
Imagine my excitement, waking up that morning to depart on my first hot air balloon ride! Balloon flights always take place early morning or evening, as usually the weather is calmer. Mine was early-morning, and so I get up in plenty of time, as it isn’t acceptable to be late – your hot air balloon won’t wait for you! I throw on a couple of layers and a hat just in case, because those flames keeping you in the air are hot after all, and although there’s a shield from the heat, it’s a worth packing one to have the option.
Following the helpful instructions provided by Mark, our pilot, parking my car was quick and only a few minutes walk away from the launch site. I arrive with 15 minutes to spare, giving me plenty of time to confirm my presence and watch as the Virgin Flight crew unfurled the giant balloon!
We meet our pilot, Mark, who reveals he is affectionately known as ‘Nobby’ to his crew and friends, and invites us to call him by it too. Nobby has racked up an impressive 3000 hot air balloon flights on his flight log book over a period of 27 years, and despite all those before us, it seemed that his enthusiasm to share the joy of hot air ballooning hadn’t dwindled since his very first flight all those years ago. He shared the fundamental information, and invited all 16 people to get stuck into the ‘pre-flight warm-up’. Rolling up our sleeves, we lined up along the edges of the giant balloon, and preceded to work as a team to stretch out the balloon flat on the ground. It was great ice-breaker, giving you the opportunity to meet others flying that morning appreciate the size of the balloon first-hand.
Once the giant balloon lay flat on the ground and we’d worked up a bit of heat in the cool early morning air, we were called back in by Mark for our safety briefing. This included the obvious and comical reminder to, “stay in the basket at all times”, before giving us our instructions of getting in and out the basket, and what to expect upon landing.
Then, it was time to inflate the balloon! Keen flyers were invited to step into a role, some to keep an eye on fans, the other to hold the skirt open so the air would be directed into the balloon. The balloon was partially inflated by cold air, before the burners were switched on to fire hot air into the balloon. Virgin’s biggest balloon needs 400’000 cubic feet of air to lift off, and stands at over 120ft tall (that’s approximately 8 double decker buses!).
With the last firing of the burner the balloon was coaxed to stand vertical, righting itself gracefully, with basket rested the right way up. Mark gave us our cue, and we all climbed into our designated section of the basket, and prepared for lift off. With everyone safely onboard and final checks made, ropes were unfastened and Mark fired the burner into the belly of the balloon. After a good helping of heat, the fire ceased and without a sound, we very gently began to float off the ground. The simple grace of the departure almost took everyone by surprise, and as we slowly, slowly drifted to level the trees, then above the trees, so the view demanded our attention.
It was peaceful, and as we rose up curiosity took hold, and we admired people’s houses, gardens and secret rooftop bars that you’d have never clued into on the ground. Watching the city slowly awaken, with a few early-risers offering us a wave here and there as they went to work and we glided low over the city, indulged the simple intrigue of what daily life looks like from a bird’s eye point of view. Mark guided us through the city, pointing out landmarks and sharing his knowledge of local history. These offers of information were engaging yet not suffocating, there was plenty of time in between to entertain your own thoughts or share your wonderment with your accompanying friends.
We enjoyed beautiful views of Bath and the surrounding area, especially grand thanks to the unity the use of bath stone gave to the cities buildings. The balloon reaches 1,200ft, and the city below becomes a minuscule Lego town, the noise muted by our distance.
After 40 magical minutes of floating over the city, Mark slowly begins to let the balloon float down towards the ground, keeping his eyes peeled for an appropriate field to land in. He spots one and asks us to adopt our landing positions which we practiced before, sat on the seat in a row, holding onto our rope handles. He proves his expertise, touching the balloon down on the ground ever so gently, with only a little drag along the grass before we come to a standstill. We all slowly step out of the basket, feeling giddy after almost an hour of flying!
We are invited to help pack the balloon, while the ground crew find the field the balloon has landed in. Everyone gets stuck in, and childish giggles take hold as the group enjoy plenty of rolling and squashing to slowly deflate the balloon, before we tie it up and roll it up into its giant balloon bag. The reward is a glass of top-notch bubbly, served up by Nobby from his basket bar, while he shares the history of hot air ballooning with the group – revealing that champagne was carried by the first balloon pilots to calm and entertain locals upon landing, because many would have never have seen anything flying before!
After our glass of bubbles and relishing in our ballooning experience, we wave goodbye to Nobby – marvelling at his expertise and envying his job as a hot air balloon pilot – and all climb aboard a mini-bus that drives us back to our cars. What a way to spend a morning! Awe-inspiring and romantic in it’s simplicity, a balloon flight is a magical gift for people of all ages. I highly recommend sharing it with friends and loved ones, as it will be a once in a lifetime experience that you won’t want to forget in a hurry!
Virgin Balloon Flight Locations
You can experience flying up, up and away in your own balloon from over 100 launch site locations all over the UK. Virgin Balloon flights make it easy for you to book your experience in a convenient location across Scotland, England and Wales. You can even let them know how far you’re prepared to travel ensure your balloon flight is nothing but breath-taking. Choosing to fly near your town will provide a whole new perspective on the place you call home, or you could travel to experience other great cities in the UK with a luxury flight – a far-cry from your average city tour! Browse the whole selection of flight location using their interactive site map, and find your nearest Virgin launch site.
Whether you’re celebrating an anniversary, wishing someone a happy birthday or showing Mum or Dad you love them, check out our amazing offers for Virgin Balloon Flights to give them a gift they won’t ever forget.