Have you ever wanted to experience a hot air balloon flight? I certainly have, so was lucky to recently try a champagne hot air balloon ride for the first time. We selected the flight in Henley on Thames for two main reasons, the countryside is very picturesque and the pilot is one of the most experienced in the country.
I had won the flight in a competition organised by Stellatus, an international agency providing creative production management and staging, lighting, audiovisual and multimedia. The prize was vouchers for a Virgin Experience Day and my first choice was naturally a hot air balloon ride. The experience lasts from three to four hours, including time to inflate and deflate the balloon, and of course to sample that champagne! On the day of our flight, the weather was looking rather dark and gloomy and we wondered if it would be postponed to another day, but the weather miraculously cleared and we got the go-ahead that the flight was on. If you choose the sunset rather than morning flight, I’d definitely advise calling on the day to check that it’s going ahead rather than just heading up there, as 2 previous flights had both been postponed due to adverse weather conditions. Gathering at the local supermarket, we drove in a convoy with our pilot to the launch site.
There the pilot and his colleague hoisted the hot air balloon basket off their four-wheel drive car and laid out the balloon ready to be inflated. He gave us a safety briefing and gave specific instructions to those of us that wished to help with the inflation of the balloon. There is no pressure (pardon the pun!) to do so and a few in our group preferred to take photos, which you’re very welcome to do.
Our pilot got started with the tricky task of bringing the balloon upright whilst the inflation fan fills the envelope and the burners gradually add heat. During this time we took up our positions, Mr Luxe holding the mouth of the balloon open during inflation and I helping in what was a sort of giant tug of war, pulling on a tether rope at the far end.
Once the balloon was upright, we could let go of the tether and climb aboard, using the little holes that you see in the basket as a foothold. It’s advisable to wear clothes suitable for a walk in the country and bring a well-fitting hat as it can get cold.
Inside the basket, it was rather snug with 16 passengers, and a maximum of four in each section. Before setting off, our pilot gave us another safety briefing, on what to do when we would later land. You sit down on a little ledge in the basket, and grip onto hand ropes, bracing yourself for landing. Then we were ready for the off, and with the pilot’s colleague untethering the ropes, up we went. The balloon moved very swiftly and smoothly. We were surprised by the silence, the only sound being an occasional burst of noise from the burner. Henley on Thames is one of the most popular Virgin Hot Air Balloon Flights and you can see why. Henley is famous for its annual Royal Regatta sailing event and we flew over beautiful stretches of riverside.
And this beautiful timber-framed property with the little village church next to it.
The action isn’t all on the ground though, as this vintage airplane was also an impressive sight.
From above, everything looked like a model village, including these cows.
Whilst these houses also had the appearance of a miniature toy town. One of the participants recognized this area as they lived close by – we had drifted quite a way from our initial launch site which is perfectly normal.
As the sun set, we savoured the last moments in the balloon – we’d been up there for around an hour and time had flown by. With wind pressure dropping, it was time for us to find a landing site.
There weren’t many open fields in the area we were in, so our pilot headed for this playing field…much to the delight of the local schoolchildren who were playing football there. We sat down in the brace position and the pilot counted 3-2-1 to landing which was smoother than in many jumbo jets. After we landed, one of our group couldn’t resist asking the schoolchildren whether we were in France yet 😉
Our pilot made the most of the extra pairs of hands to help deflate the balloon by squashing it down to squeeze the air out and then tying it up into something resembling a giant sausage.
While the local children were peeking inside the basket, we drank a welcome glass of champagne or water before heading off in taxis to the original launch site about 20 minutes away. The pilot’s colleague had stayed on the ground during our flight and arranged the pick up once he knew the post code of the landing site. It was a fantastic experience and one that I highly recommend if you get the chance, I’d love to do another one.
Contact Virgin Balloon Flights via their website or by telephone: +44 1952 212750
Have you ever been in a hot air balloon? Would you like to do so?