Ruby Balloon Floating over Norfolk

Visit To A Balloon Factory

About to Standup A nice article for General Aviation Pilots , introducing them to ballooning. This article is reproduced in full as published in the GASCO Flight Safety magazine (Autumn 2001), with a little bit of updating.

Flight Safety regularly includes reports of accidents and incidents from all branches of General Aviation. Unusually, this issue includes a report of a ballooning incident (it led to damage to a chimney), but even minor incidents at this level are infrequent. My researches so far have failed to reveal when there was last a fatality in UK ballooning and British balloonists are wont to tell you that statistically their form of aviation is even safer than flight in an airliner. If that is so, then it must be by far the safest type of aviation practised by our members, saving only model flying.

In addition to being safer, it is also cheaper than most other GA activities. A four person balloon costs, new, around £25,000 and operating costs, including maintenance, work out at around £120 to £150 per hour. A team of at least four people is needed to launch, fly and recover and this requirement often leads to balloons being owned by groups. This also serves to reduce the costs per person considerably. Alternatively, it is not very difficult to defray all your capital and operating costs by the simple device of recruiting a commercial sponsor. Balloons are probably the finest advertising hoardings going.

To learn more about ballooning generally and its safety aspects in particular, I called on Cameron Balloons Ltd. in Bristol and met Hannah Cameron, who deals with public relations. She is an experienced balloon pilot and spends much of her flying time in instructing others. The size and success of this family business left me considerably impressed. They manufacture about one balloon a day and are easily the largest balloon manufacturers in the world. Some 85% of their product is exported and they have another factory in Dexter Michigan in the USA. The business was begun exactly 30 years ago by Don Cameron, Hannah's father, who has particular abilities in engineering and financial prudence (he is a Scot). The Bristol factory now employs some 120 staff including designers, art work specialists and teams of machinists, many of whom used to work in the clothing industry that is shrinking so rapidly these days.

Rather like the aerospace industry, balloon manufactory has undergone radical consolidation in recent years, during which Cameron Balloons have taken over Thunder & Colt, Sky Balloons International and Lindstrand Balloons. The identities, the particular design qualities and the existing staff of these other manufacturers have largely been retained so that each can play to its individual strength. Whenever you read of yet another ballooning exploit, the chances are that the actual balloon was made by Camerons. The Breitling Orbiter 3 circumnavigation of the world in 1999 by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones was on board a Cameron R-650 Roziere balloon.. David Hempleman-Adams's 1241 mile flight close to the North Pole last year was in a Cameron R-90 and Anulfo Gonzalez's crossing of the South Pole was in a Cameron Concept-60. You can confidently to expect to hear of many more exploits in Cameron balloons in the near future as there are other projects in hand. Inevitably, with such success in both exporting and innovative design, awards tend to be bestowed upon the company in profusion. The Charles Green Salver was presented at the factory in Bristol by Her Majesty the Queen on behalf of GASCo members, the British Balloon and Airship Club. At the Royal Aero Club in 2000 His Royal Highness, the Duke of York presented Don Cameron with the Gerald Frewer Memorial Trophy and members of the Cameron Design Team with a RAeC diploma. Other recent awards include the Queen's Award to Industry, the Prince Philip Design Award and the Lowell Thomas Award from the prestigious international Explorers' Club.

In the course of my factory visit, I learned some of the essentials of hot air balloon manufacture. The loads of the envelope are all borne by the tapes that are sewn in at the joins between the fabric gores and these tapes can typically withstand stresses of around one and a half tons. In addition to the vertical tapes there are horizontal tapes that are less visible because they are sewn on the inside of the envelope. At the crown there is a parachute valve operated a by red parachute operating line that is led down to the basket. This serves to collapse the envelope after landing so as to ensure that the balloon stays down once it has touched down. The fabric of the gores is generally a double rip stop synthetic material in a tartan weave and this offers lightness, strength and considerable resistance to damage; it also has a working temperature of 100 deg C. Balloons have come a very long way since the Montgolfier brothers' canopy of linen paper. Differing specifications of material are used in different locations and on different balloons. The material used has a fundamental effect on the life and performance of the canopy and Camerons reckon that their fabrics lead the field by a good margin. Baskets made of wicker and cane are still by far the most popular type, although, if you are thinking of riding the jet streams of the upper airspace, you will probably want suspended beneath your Roziere a gondola of Kevlar and carbon fibre which can be pressurised if you so desire.

The typical useful life of a balloon envelope is around 400 or more hours, but the actual life will depend considerably upon how it has been treated. Abrasion, dampness, careless packing and storage are the enemies; people who own yachts will recognise similar enemies as regards the life of sails. Balloons intended for frequent use, such as passenger balloons, will be built with stronger fabrics and enjoy a longer useful life. Eventually an envelope will begin to become porous, and to lose its colour so that the owner will be thinking of a replacement envelope costing around £7000 for a four person balloon. Commercial balloons require a professional 100 hour check and/or an annual. Typical subjects for inspection are the integrity of the tapes, the fabric, the stitching, the flying wires and the basket. Private balloonists can carry out their own inspections if they choose but many prefer an independent inspection if only for the benefit of a lower insurance premium.

The training for a balloonist pilot's licence will seem fairly undemanding for pilots of other sorts of aerial devices, but bearing in mind how weather dependent ballooning is (Pilots under Training usually fly in surface winds of 5 to 8 KTS) the training period is likely to be much the same as in other GA activities. Cameron Balloons suggest three to twelve months as being likely. There are CAA ground exams in air law, navigation, meteorology, systems and human performance and holders of other types of pilots' licence will be entitled to some exemptions. The BBAC will also advocate a Landowners' Relations Course. Flying training calls for a minimum of 16 hours, with 20 to 40 being more typical and these culminate in a Recommendation Flight, followed by an Examination Flight. The licence is issued by the CAA on the recommendation of BBAC.

The main control system on a hot air balloon is the gas burner. Open the taps to rise and turn them off to sink. That seems simple enough compared with all that Power, Attitude, Trim stuff that you meet with aeroplanes, but the Big Issue with balloons in the considerable delay between operating the control and getting any reaction. Balloons have enormous inertia and it is clear that a balloon pilot has be continually anticipating and making control inputs that will prove appropriate to the state of affairs that will prevail at some time in the future. All aviators are familiar with the perils of over correction, sometimes leading to the dreaded Pilot Induced Oscillation, and I can easily imagine a student balloon pilot, sensing that the rate of descent to land is too high, anxiously piling on the coals, causing the balloon to rise rapidly some five to fifteen seconds later, leading to a fearful shutting down of the burners for too long, eventually causing an even greater rate of descent - and so on. Meanwhile the wind is carrying the balloon beyond the selected landing field towards a belt of trees. With practice the trainee will learn anticipation and refinements such as smudging in heat gently, releasing hot air from the envelope and changing direction by using differing wind vectors at different heights.

Like most other sorts of aviation, it is in the take offs and landings that the greatest perils lie, but the saving grace of ballooning is that provided that it is carried out in light winds everything happens slowly and gently so that mistakes may prove embarrassing but seldom cause serious injury. Mid airs between balloons are frequent at balloon rallies and are of no account whatsoever. Compare that with the careful deliberations of our AirProx Board over air misses between aircraft that were maybe a quarter of a mile apart, and you can get some idea of how ballooning is often a relatively more relaxed activity than some other forms of aviation. If you are a powered pilot, however, do not imagine that a close encounter with a balloon is of no account. The propwash and/or vortices from a powered aircraft can cause a serious upset for a hot air balloon, so please stay well away.

GA pilots do it for the fun, the excitement, the adventure and the camaraderie and all these elements are to be had in abundance in ballooning. The cost is small and the degree of safety is impressive. I believe that the attractions of ballooning could well tempt pilots of other sorts of aircraft to look seriously at this interesting alternative.