1998 Hamilton Balloon Fiesta

My First Flight:

April 1st, 1998 - Innes Common, Hamilton

I was really excited when NZ Aviation News Editor Graeme Porter asked me if I'd like to attend the Fiesta as a media observer. Day one of the Fiesta was the 'Agfa Mass Ascension' - and media day, where members of the media are allocated a place for a ride in a balloon. As Graeme was putting the Magazine to print that day, I got to take his place as the NZ Aviation News representative, and my partner Louise Luckman attended for NZ Sport Flying. As a longtime attendee of the Hamilton Balloon Fiesta , albeit as a spectator, this was a chance I'd been waiting for.

The only draw back to the deal was having to show up at Innes Common (the launch site), at 5.45am - my body clock tells me this is pretty much the middle of the night - after all, it was still dark. We checked in at the media tent to receive our balloon allocations, and then waited for the briefing. The briefing didn't start till 6.30am - it was still dark. Balloonmeister Martin Moroney (shown at left) gave the participants the run down on what was to happen, a reminder on the rules, a quick run down on the weather, and then everyone dispersed to prepare the balloons.

Despite the early hour (particularly as it was a Wednesday morning), a good crowd was present. With the sun barely making an appearance, the balloons were laid out, and the process of inflation begun. When packed up the envelope is not all that huge, but it spreads out a long way. A rope is attached to the crown (the top) and in turn to a heavy object - in the case a 4WD vehicle. After the balloon envelope is run out, the basket and burners are unpacked. Testing the burners is quite spectacular as the flames leap into the air (as you can see below). This is also a welcome source of warmth on a cool autumn morning! A fan is then used to begin inflating the envelope. The crew rushes around and ties various panels of the ballon in place as the envelope begins to rise. The cold fan gets the process so far, and then hot air is used. The basket is tipped on its side so the burners can be directed into the envelope.

The ballon Louise and I were allocated to as passengers was ZK-FBR, a Thunder and Colt AX8-105 (S.2) piloted by Alistair Malcolm. Alistair has been with Fiesta since it began. Initially a group of friends gathering to fly together, the Fiesta was picked up by Tourism Waikato and became a formal event. They in turn passed the event onto organiser Graham Hannah. In previous years, Alistair had acted as balloonmeister. This year he told us he just wanted to be a participant. His crew (seen running out the envelope) were student pilots Svend Villsen and Xandra Kraayenhof with Don Pemberton. Alistair can be seen in the photos to the right dressed in blue overalls. The vents in the crown of the envelope are being tied shut.

Its a really amazing site watching all the multicoloured material rise around you, when a number of balloons inflate in a small area. The overwhelming feeling is one of being very small! The Innes Common launch site allows the public to get in amongst the balloons and get a close look at what's happening. The children in particular seem to find it all fascinating - although many of the adults aren't far behind. Its a stunning moment to watch when the envelope reaches the point where it rises clear of the ground, and the basket rolls upright with the balloon above it. The crown rope I mentioned earlier helps control the lift off - another rope to the basket prevents things from running away!

At right can be seen one of the film crews present to record the event. I think these folk were polytechnic students getting some practice, but there were representatives of New Zealand's main networks present - including Jim Hickey, a weather presenter well known for his interest in aviation. He certainly didn't look his usual cheerful self at the briefing - maybe I'm not the only one who doesn't like getting up early!

Our balloon was inflated and ready to go by around 7.30am. Alistair made some last minute checks, and then briefed us on what to expect. As well as Louise and myself, Walter Blackburn from Radio 1206 (Community Radio) was assigned to travel with Alistair. Then we climbed in - no easy task as the basket is more than a metre high. After a brief wait for an available balloonmeister to supervise our ascension, we lifted off.

The takeoff can't really be described as a 'takeoff'. There's no feeling of acceleration or movement as there is in most aircraft. Instead, the ground dropped away beneath us. It was the strangest feeling, because the overwhelming impression I got was that the earth was moving rather than us! As can be seen from the picture above, the people on the ground got smaller, but the view of the balloons became even more spectacular. It was a grey start to the day but the sun glowed through the overcast, giving a curious golden backdrop to the east.

At this point I also learnt why so many balloonists wear hats. Its not to keep the cold out - its to keep the heat off. The burners, despite being above and pointed away, generate a huge amount of heat. That might seem kind of obvious since that's how the balloon works, but for some reason I hadn't realised what it would be like. I know I'm a bit short on hair on top - but after the flight there was even less and I felt a bit scorched. I can't say we got cold during our flight!

Although the event is called a 'mass' ascension, the balloons do not lift off in one bunch - rather there is a steady stream of takeoffs over a period of about twenty minutes. Some balloons inflate quicker than others, and each must wait for an available balloonmeister. The Meister, or one of his assistants has to be present as each balloon lifts off. This provides a longer spectacle for those watching on the ground - and for those of us who were amongst the first in the air. With nearly thirty balloons participating, there was plenty to see. We initially drifted north over Lake Rotoroa (the small lake in the centre of Hamilton), which provided a new viewpoint. The reflections on the water only added to the colour of the event.

While we were over the lake, Alistair our pilot took the opportunity to touch the basket on the lake surface. This was a practice for the 'splash and dash' competition later in the week where balloonists attempt to hit a target on the lake. We weren't the only balloon trying this - Stuart Finlan can be seen at left descending toward the lake in G-BNGO. This is one of my favourite photographs from the event as I had to wait quite a while to get the burner in the frame. Stuart who is now New Zealand resident holds private, commercial and instructor licenses from the UK and has considerable international experience. The balloon shown at right is ZK-LAR, a Cameron Concept, flown by Rik Grant (who has attended the fiesta since 1994) who also has international experience in Britain, France, and the United States. I'm also quite pleased with this picture featuring the lake and Waikato Hospital in the early morning light.

As we sailed through the sky, our fellow passenger Walter Blackburn, was reporting on our progress to his radio station. It felt quite strange to think that there were lots of people out there listening to what we were doing. While Walter was doing this, Louise and I (as you can probably tell) were furiously using up film stock. Balloons were all around us, and it was hard to decide where to look. I kept turning around and around trying to take it all in - not to mention getting it on film!

As we rose away from the lake, we entered an airstream moving in a different direction. We moved back around the edge of the lake, and then towards our launch site. As the balloon gained altitude, we found ourselves passing behind the launch site on Innes Common, and moving south toward Kahikatea drive. This gave us a glorious view of the remaining balloons as they headed skyward.

As we moved toward Kahikatea drive we encountered another wind shift and found ourselves drifting westward. We came quite close to the Kookaburra shaped balloon G-CHKL 'Canowindra'. The balloon is based in Australia, operating from Canowindra in New South Wales - hence the name It is owned by an Australian who lives in Guernsey which is why the Australian symbol carries a UK registration. The huge Cameron produced balloon, (120,000 cubic feet stretching over 150ft from beak to tail) was piloted by Peter Vizzard. Peter, who has been ballooning since 1966, was World champ in 1983 - 1984 and has been Australian national champ twice. I spoke to him last year during the balloon's first visit to Hamilton, and he told me the awkward shape meant the balloon needed a bigger crew than regular-shaped balloons and had three times as many vents.

Also getting close were the 'Agfa Canister' G-OHDC, and Christchurch based ZK-FAD. The balloons were tethered while globe-trotting pilot Ian Ashpole practised for one of his 'stunts'. Ashpole, who has more than 2000 hours of piloting experience is renouned for his unusual activities - including going from balloon to balloon while airborne. The Agfa company was the main sponsor for the 1998 Fiesta. The other balloon, ZK-FAD, is a Cameron O-120 operated by the Balloon Affair Ltd of Christchurch. Note the helicopter circling in the background. It was strange knowing they were watching us and the other balloons.

In the wasteland behind the industrial area in Kahikatea drive, Alistair took the opportunity to practice some landings. Alistair mentioned he hadn't had much flying recently - it was hard to tell. We made a gentle descent - with a barely detectable bump as we touched down. Unfortunately a good size shrub got in the way as we rose again, and was probably the worse for our passing. A gentleman sleeping 'rough' also seemed a little disturbed by our early morning appearance. As we continued along our way Alistair enthralled us with accounts of some of the overseas events he had attended (like Albequerque).

Alistair kept the balloon fairly low as we travelled across the city. Being the first day of the Fiesta, part of the purpose of the flight was to advertise the presence of the balloons - and people definitely noticed. Travelling across the traffic on Greenwood street around 8am we could see people looking up from their cars and cycles. It was funny watching them slow down and speed up - although I was worried about being a traffic hazard. We didn't see any accidents. Moving into the industrial area across the road, people were coming out of buildings to watch our passing.

The photo at right is my favourite from the day. It shows Frans Knispel in the 'Starlight balloon' ZK-FBO, crossing the roading contractors yard next to Greenwood street. The balloon is a a Cameron V-65 from Christchurch. In the distance is VH-ANQ piloted by Aavo Henderson. A number of people appeared from the buildings to watch us pass by. I was amazed that we could simply talk to these people from the basket as we passed - the sound carried effortlessly.

As we moved over Dinsdale, Alistair and Walter spoke to a number of people. It was fun watching those who weren't aware of our presence trying to work out where the voice was coming from. Many folks were obviously aware of us from some distance away - particularly the children on there way to school. Some people were even up on there roofs to get a better view. We saw one guy flat on his back with a video-camera as we flew over. Not everyone appreciated the balloons however. Cats were conspicuous by the fact we only saw them running away from us. Dogs also did not like the noise of the burners, and we could hear them barking over a wide radius around us. Alistair said this was a common reaction to the burners.

Alistair told us it was quite funny what you could see from a balloon - especially when people didn't close their curtains. We had to agree. The strangest thing we saw was a drug bust. We saw a man in uniform fossicking around in a backyard. Then we saw another coming out of the house carrying a large pot plant - which as we approached was indeed a large 'pot' plant - and there was more in the police car parked in the drive. We thought it better not to say anything as we passed. We heard later on the radio that a number of houses were raided. The funniest thing to be seen was a school bus that leaned noticeably as all the children raced to one side to watch us - I felt sorry for the driver!

At this point we had been airborne for nearly an hour - so Alistair opted to land in a street. We actually touched down (very gently again) in Burrows Place, a short dead-end street in Dinsdale. I was impressed with the way Alistair avoided the trees and light standards as he landed in the end of the cul-de-sac. The flying conditions were still good, so Alistair decided to rearrange the passengers. Alistair likes to let his crew have some airtime to reward them for their hard work. Louise and I were to get out, and Xandra to get in. But for some reason, after I got out he decided there was plenty of room for Louise to stay. As you can see in the photo at left, Louise was extremely pleased about this development. So they were up and away again.

I didn't mind the change - it gave me a chance to see the other side of things, and get some different photos. So I got in the chase vehicle with Sven, and we were away after the balloon. Its not an easy thing picking the flight path as you negotiate the streets. It must be harder to stay close out in the country - at least we had plenty of streets to choose from.

After about fifteen minutes in the vehicle, we picked they were making for Bremworth Park, and drove ahead to meet them. Several other balloons had already touched down. A few people were standing around as we watched ZK-FBR arrive, but suddenly the place just filled up with children and their parents. The picture to the left shows the touchdown - the balloon surrounded by small people on foot, on bicycles, and in parent's arms. Balloons just have an amazing power of attraction.

The picture at right shows the chase vehicle - which also acts as balloon carrier, and as an anchor on occasion! The big 4x4 was towing a trailor to carry the balloon on this day, so we could ride back to the launch point.

Now the balloon was down, the next step was to deflate the envelope. Alistair opened the vents in the crown by pulling on a rope which pulled out fabric patches previously 'velcro'ed in place. As the hot air rose out of the holes, the envelope slowly collaped. A rope to the crown is used to lead the balloon over to one side, and as it collapses, the basket is tipped on its side. The envelope is then stretched out using a small device which loops around the fabric. Its really nifty, but very hard to describe. It slides up the fabric pulling the envelope into a long tube - which can then be put into the storage bag!

This isn't quite as easy as it sounds - but with willing hands doesn't take too long. As can be seen at left, the resulting tube of fabric is picked up and stuffed into the bag. Its a bit tidier than putting away a sleeping bag, but I thought the process looked kind of similar. When the job is done, the huge balloon doesn't seem so big! The burners are then taken off the basket, which was placed on the trailer - and everything else was then stored in the basket.

At this point our adventure was pretty much over. It was into the 4x4 for the short ride back to Innes Common. For about 75 minutes in the air, we had landed about 2.5 kilometres from our launch point - although by a somewhat indirect route. We arrived back just after 9.00am - only to find breakfast was over. Oh well, I didn't mind. But I was hooked on balloons!

My thanks to Alistair and his crew for the flight, also to Graham Hannah for organising it, and to Graham Porter (Editor of NZ Aviation News) and John King (Editor of NZ Sport Flying) for deciding they had other things to do that day! Our results were published in the May 98 Edition of NZ Aviation News (inside back cover) and the July-Sep issue of NZ Sport Flying (pp45-46)

Aviation Homepage © 1999 Phillip Treweek, all rights reserved