Thisarticle appeared in The Times, 4 August 2001

Up,up and away...


Ournovice balloonist comes back to earth with a bump

ONApril Fool’s Day 1998, during his third solo attempt to reach the NorthPole, David Hempleman-Adams lay exhausted on the ice and watched the vapourtrail from an aircraft 35,000ft above. He wondered if there was an easierway to travel than dragging a heavy sledge packed with survival kit overtreacherous ice.

Bythe time he reached the top of the world four weeks later, the 42-year-oldadventurer — who had already climbed the highest mountains on seven continentsand visited the South Pole — had a new ambition: to fly a balloon to theNorth Pole from Spitsbergen. But first he would have to learn to fly one.

WhenHempleman-Adams returned to his home near Bath, the ballooning capitalof Britain, he went to see an expert trainer, Terry McCoy, who taught himso well he was able to set off for the Pole once more, but this time inthe relative comfort of a balloon.

McCoyinitiates enthusiasts into the mysteries of the sport in the gentle greenspaces of Bath’s Victoria Park. As I arrived for my first lesson, the vastpurple and yellow envelope was laid out on the grass, the burners mountedin the leather-bound wicker basket. Normally a single tether is enoughto secure the balloon for an inaugural flight, but on this occasion lineswere attached to three cars, and Hempleman-Adams and McCoy were lookinganxiously at the trees.

Conditionsare usually at their calmest at dawn and dusk, but the wind was risingominously above the predicted three knots. Deciding that sooner would bebetter than later, McCoy turned on an electric fan to pump cold air intothe envelope.

Balloonsizes are measured in cubic feet, from the minimum 31,000 required to liftone person in a chair to a monster 500,000 capable of carrying 25 joy-ridingpassengers, but this one was a neat 80,000, easily manoeuvrable for a beginner.Or so I chose to believe.

Asthe envelope filled with air, Hempleman-Adams switched on the burners toheat it up until it was ready for lift-off. I scrambled in and we rosegently into the sky over the city. “Safety first,” said McCoy reassuringly.“We’ve never lost anyone yet.”

Lessonone is about burner control. Too much heat and the balloon rockets upwardsout of control. Too little and it stays where it is. None at all and itplummets back to earth. As we stood, swaying gently in the basket, Hempleman-Adamsissued instructions on opening the valve in short bursts, causing the flamesto roar into the envelope.

Dazedby the noise, I didn’t know whether I was going up or down, but I graduallyachieved some semblance of control. Then I had to land. Beginners sufferfrom ground shyness and have an irresistible urge to fire up the burnerone last time to prevent a knee-juddering impact.

Whenthe balloon stayed airborne as a result, I went too easy on the burner,causing it to descend too fast. Hempleman-Adams is renowned for his ownlandings, so he knew what would happen next. “Bend your knees and hangon,” he said as the basket slammed into the turf. Nothing for it but togo back up and try again.

Thetethered flight — in my case, we did not rise more than 50ft, enough topractise keeping the balloon level — is the first step in getting a privatepilot’s licence. This consists of five written exams in air law, navigation,meteorology, balloon systems and human performance, plus a flight testwith an examiner, followed by a solo flight conducted under observation.

Preparingfor the checkout flight requires at least 16 logged flying hours, plusfour flights with an instructor. The investment in time and money — atleast £3,000 — is about the same as for fixed-wing pilot’s licence,but once you’re free to go it alone ballooning is cheaper and less regulatedthan flying.

Itis also far less predictable. You are allowed to take off from your owngarden or field, but since balloons are at the mercy of the wind, whereyou will land is anyone’s guess. In 1897, the Swedish pioneer Salomon AugustAndree and his two companions came down on the way from Spitsbergen tothe North Pole, then died after eating infected polar bear meat on thelong haul back to civilisation.

In2000 Hempleman-Adams followed their projected route, leaving Spitsbergenon May 28 and getting within 12 miles of the Pole on June 1. He saved theworst for last, enduring the threat of imminent death for 30 minutes asthe envelope dragged the basket at high speed through broken ice off Spitsbergen.

Inthe end, the helicopter came to the rescue, but he knows he would get aneasier landing almost anywhere else.

“InIreland,” he says, “they fight to give you breakfast, then they open upthe pub at seven in the morning. You’d be lucky to leave before noon.”

Butwhy enjoy yourself when you could be notching up another record by flyingover Everest, north to south, Tibet to Nepal? That’s Hempleman-Adams’snext adventure. As for me, I’m half Irish so it’s no contest.

  • TerryMcCoy’s Ascent Balloon Company (01761 432327; training £85 an hour, balloon and fuel, £100 per flyinghour, ground crew £30 a flight. The International Balloon Fiesta2001, August 9-12, Ashton Court Estate, Bristol, provides an introductionto the sport. £5 per car, entry free. Information: 0117 953 5884.For other ballooning events, click on the British Balloon and Airship Club’swebsite at At theMercyof the Winds, by David Hempleman-Adams (Bantam, £17.99)
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