It is early evening, and the West Sussex sun is coating the countryside in a syrupy glow. Brian, together with Neil Lindsay, a balloonist who has agreed to take a supporting role, is lugging equipment out of a trailer. Out of a voluminous sack come the billowing, canary-yellow bulges of the balloon. Then a cuboid case is unzipped, and the “sofa” is revealed. Neil inspects it. “Actually,” he says, “it’s more of a garden bench.”
Even that is generous. The “Duo Chariot”, as it is hubristically named, is simply a padded steel frame with two canvas seats slung above a tank of propane.
“We’ll be like those magnificent men in their flying machines,” says Brian, founder of the British School of Ballooning and the most enthusiastic person I have ever met. “The seat tips slightly backwards, which makes it an incredibly relaxing way of flying.”
Sadly, there are fewer balloons around these days. Liz Meek, editor of the ballooning magazine Aerostat, says there are around 600 functioning balloons in Britain, compared to 1,700 in the early Nineties. This, she says, is largely due to the advent of commercial balloon operators, who offer the opportunity to buy a one-off balloon “experience” without having to learn to fly yourself.
Recently, however, a new craze has taken off: people are taking to the skies in balloons that carry just one or two people. One Man Meet (cloudhoppers.org), an annual celebration of one-person balloons known as “Cloudhoppers”, is expecting more than 30 balloons on October 12-14 in Welshpool. Make no mistake: the mini balloon is on the up.
“The advantages are tremendous,” says Liz. “I have a balloon with a two-man collapsible basket. My boyfriend and I take it on holiday with us in the back of the car, along with a folding motorbike that we bought on eBay. We find somewhere to park, then fly off with the motorbike strapped to the side. After we land, he rides back on the bike to get the car, while I pack away the balloon.” In traditional ballooning, a “retriever” has to follow the balloon in the car and pick up the crew when they land. With her mini balloon and motorbike, Liz can do away with all this.
Small balloons are also less expensive and easier to handle. Most have open seats rather than baskets, making you feel more in touch with the sky: not quite extreme ballooning, but something approaching it.
Brian and Neil lay out the balloon on the ground and attach it to the “chariot”. They set up a large fan and blow cold air into the “envelope” to make it bulge. Finally they fire the propane burner, and a flame equivalent to two-and-a-half central heating systems shoots jets of hot air into the envelope. The balloon lifts to a vertical position.
“Now,” says Brian, “jump on.” I hasten to the bench and, marvelling at my lack of concern for my own welfare, strap myself in. “Have a nice flight,” says Neil, drolly. He casts off the moorings and we rise, legs dangling, into space. Continue reading on the Telegraph website