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Balloon Stories 2: Land Near a Road

It doesn’t take many trips in a balloon to realise that it’s much easier to land near to a road so that the retrieve vehicle has easy access to bring the trailer up to the balloon. Life is much easier now with mobile phones and walkie-talkies, but a balloon is still surprisingly difficult to spot once it is down on the ground – especially if it’s windy enough to blow over rather than remaining standing up. Even so, there are plenty of bits of Kent and Sussex where there is no phone signal and all radios are hopeless out of line of sight – and that’s on the ground in most of the UK.

I had a call at work one morning from the Directorate of Airspace Policy (DAP), part of the Civil Aviation Authority, but a bit different from the rest. The Directorate, as its name suggests, looks after airspace policy for the UK and, as it is divided up into chunks used by civil and military aircraft, there is a very strong serving military presence in DAP. There is also a very strong, but retired, military presence in the rest of the CAA too. This is because the CAA recruits by advertising in the back pages of Flight magazine and RAF crew are trained from an early age to read Flight from the back. As a very slightly simplified explanation of the relationship between DAP and the rest of the CAA, DAP tries to keep as much of the UK’s airspace for whizzing about in by the RAF whenever it has an aeroplane serviceable and the rest of the CAA tries to make sure the military don’t fly into a civilian airliner full of self-loading freight.

So, I have this phone call from a slightly angry – more indignant and pressurised really– Group Captain who I’ve got to know over the years and who knows that I fly balloons – and know quite a lot of other balloonists.

“Bob,” (to the point and without unnecessary preamble) “do you happen to know who operates the Greenpeace balloon these days?” As it happens, I do know, having been asked the year before by said operator if I was interested in flying the same balloon at Glastonbury Festival – an offer I turned down on the grounds of needing the day job rather more. Before admitting that I know, it seemed sensible to get a bit more information so I explained that Greenpeace has more than one balloon and that, although they are operated in the UK from time to time, they are registered in (say) Holland and usually flown by (say) a Swedish pilot. This makes it very difficult for the authorities in any particular country to take action if the balloon causes embarrassment by its presence in their airspace. And the Greenpeace balloon had just been very embarrassing.

“It’s just flown the length of RAF Fairford runway and buzzed a bunch of American B52 bombers parked there.” Now, being “buzzed” by a balloon is not going to worry the average American bomber pilot (easily spotted in his baseball cap emblazoned with “Nuke ‘em ‘til they glow” and other touching epithets embroidered by the Daughters of the Revolution. However, these particular B52s were en route from America to Iraq and had just stopped over to ply the locals with nylons and chewing gum while the aircraft were refuelled, or waited for orders, or had it explained again to their crews, slowly, using big writing and crayons, that “friendly fire” really wasn’t very nice.

“Tell your chums,” (even less preamble and pleasantry) “that we” (the Brits) “have launched a police helicopter and there is a police car following the balloon as well. The Americans have launched one of their helicopters to give chase too. We’ll get the blighter.” I just mentioned that a balloon is surprisingly difficult to spot once it is down on the ground and the phone went dead with what I took to be a fair bit of force from the other end.

After twenty years in the RAF I knew that a wound-up Group Captain was a thing to be wary of (ordure rolls inexorably downwards and the trick is to make sure that as little as possible sticks to you on its way). So I called the operator of the Greenpeace balloon on his mobile. No real surprise; – he was at a balloon meet in Portugal and knew nothing about “RAF” Fairford (a deployment airfield in Gloucestershire for the US) or American bombers and expressed some astonishment that the balloon pilot had chosen to fly over the runway on just the day when the Americans were visiting in some numbers. He also thought that the banner on the balloon saying “STOP THE WAR” was coincidental and didn’t refer to Iraq or America in particular. I told him that the Americans were a bit miffed and then I wished him safe flying over Portugal and sat back having done my bit (oh, and having found out that the balloon pilot was actually Swedish and the balloon was Dutch registered and had taken off from just outside the Fairford perimeter fence and would land just over the far side when clear of the airfield – twenty minutes total flying at the most.)

My phone rang again about two hours later. A slightly subdued Group Captain - “They lost it.” The police car was diverted to arrest an illegally parked motorist in Cirencester. The police helicopter diverted to an accident on the M5 and the American helicopter flew around for a bit without finding the balloon before the crew ran low on burgers and had to return to base. I had the sense not to say “I told you so”, because the next words were a bit more serious. “Tell your mates,” (I was now firmly classed with the enemies of the democratic right to bomb foreigners in godforsaken places) “that if they fly over Fairford tomorrow morning, they will be shot down.” The phone went dead again but this time in a threatening sort of way. (Group Captains like to ring off by depressing the receiver rest by hand, which they could always do faster than you could put the phone down - and that’s why they now hate mobile phones).

I rang the balloon operator in Portugal again and explained the situation. We both agreed that it was probably not a good idea to fly over Fairford the next day. The Americans had been made to look silly, which was likely to have the same effect as poking a wasps’ nest with a sharp stick, only worse; – wasps don’t have the nagging feeling that the world is laughing at them all the time. It was unlikely that they would actually shoot down a Greenpeace balloon, but then again they just might. This obviously left the operator in a difficult position as he did not know anything about the balloon’s intended flying for the next day, but he promised to pass on the message to someone who might.

Next day the Greenpeace balloon either didn’t fly over Fairford or else the pilot has been languishing in Guantanamo Bay ever since – we shall never know.