Upon our return from France things moved swiftly into top gear, and not a moment too soon. Broadly speaking, the ‘plan’ envisaged that we would undertake some basic trials with the deployment of parachutists from the balloon, followed by a rehearsal preceding the official press launch and then, when weather conditions were perfect, undertake the record-breaking flight in the glare of the media, ending with the duo landing in front of the great and good from GH Mumm at Ston Easton Park.
The Press Launch was scheduled for 10th May 2005, so on the day before all the support services descended on Ston Easton Park to prepare the site. The enlarged photographic team also assembled for this key stage, with my old friend Russel West (now sadly deceased) covering the launch site and award-winning photographer John Robert Young and his wife Jenny covering the landings at Netheravon before converging on Ston Easton Park. Normandy Company, Somerset Cadet Bn (The Light Infantry) ACF, helped by supplying two 12x12 tents that were to be used as a Media Centre. All hands were called for as we wrestled with the erection of the tents. They may have been ‘army friendly’ but they almost foxed us!
In the afternoon, whilst the majority of the team were preparing for the morrow’s events, Bear appeared with his Gilo Cardozo-built paramotor - essentially a seat with an engine strapped behind, rigged to a large ram air parachute. Despite warnings from Phill that an accident would spell the end of the project, with which the sponsors would be none too happy, Bear pushed hard for a flight. A crowd soon started to appear as he tried, in vain for a time, to get the engine to run successfully. Eventually all appeared to be well and he took off across the lawn towards the footbridge over the haha, narrowly missing not only the bridge and fence, but becoming an early statistic! After ten minutes flight or so he arrived back to a ‘controlled’ landing, working on the old aviator’s maxim that “if you can walk away from contact with Mother Earth you’ve succeeded!”. A collective sigh of relief could be heard around the site that the leading protagonist had survived yet another escapade. Incidentally, in was in uprated versions of this paramotor that Bear and Gilo were to attempt their flight over Mount Everest a few years later.
For the first time all the team got to see G-MUMM in all its glory. As evening approached and the wind died, G-MUMM was unloaded and unfurled on the front lawn. At almost seven storeys high it dwarfed Ston Easton House and the seemingly large lawn to its front. Clive Bailey and his team supervised the attachment of the basket and the inflation began. Naturally, a large crowd of onlookers materialised, all mesmerised by the vast size of the envelope. With no wind to speak of the balloon towered over the house and presented a benign view to the world. More than a few knots of wind could transform the balloon into a terrifying monster, easily capable of lifting three or four trucks off the ground in a gust of wind. That was why early morning or late afternoon launches are essential for any balloon, as this is the time of day when the wind speeds are usually at their lowest. Being so large, G-MUMM was particularly susceptible to gusts of wind - something that we could not afford lest it ruined our carefully laid out plans. In the distance we noted a hot air balloon on a sightseeing flight that seemed to be a baby compared to our leviathan. An RAF C-130 Hercules flew low over the site, seemingly investigating the giant tethered in our midst. Common sense prevailed and the balloon was hastily vented and packed back in its travelling container.
We also had to have the practise jump, so on the morning of the Press Launch the balloon team, headed by pilot Clive Bailey, departed before dawn to a site on Salisbury Plain Training Area. Here, in perfect conditions, G-MUMM was inflated and a mixed load of parachutists boarded. Bear and Alan led the way, with Phill Elston following and then Pte Simon McConnell from 1st Bn The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (1 PWRR), attached to JSPC and coincidentally the son of an old friend, Steve McConnell from 3 PARA, backing the jumpers up.
The weather was nigh on perfect as the huge balloon was inflated and launched just after dawn. The track was good and a little later, as we stood around on the chilly Drop Zone we saw G-MUMM heading straight for us. It was only as it got closer that we began to realise just what a huge balloon it was. When we first saw it we assumed that it was only a mile or so away, endeavouring to relate size/distance with the balloons that we were used to seeing, but it quickly became apparent that we had seen it much further away than we realised, as it took ages in the light morning airs for it to climb into position over the DZ. Four tiny shapes detached themselves from the basket at irregular intervals and went into a brief period of freefall before deploying their canopies. Alan, Phill and Pte McConnell all landed within 400m of the DZ, but Bear disappeared over the ridge line, ending up a long way from the DZ marker. Accuracy could only improve we hoped, otherwise the appreciably smaller DZ envisaged at Ston Easton Park might prove to be something of an embarrassment.
Most importantly though, the deployment from the basket of the balloon had not presented any significant problems, although none of the oxygen kit was tested nor was the underslung table fitted, as it was on its way by road in the back of Gilo’s ancient pickup to Ston Easton for the Press Launch. Thus, whilst the jump from G-MUMM was fun, it tested none of the procedures or systems that would be used in the official record breaking jump later in June!
Psychologically though, the jump was good for Bear and Alan as it put them on a high for the Press Launch, although David H-A had still not flown the balloon. Recovering the balloon and the parachutists, we made our way to Ston Easton for breakfast and the Press Launch.
The official line was that the team intended to fly the balloon in June for the record breaking attempt, although we had planned to have a full dress rehearsal the next day as the weather forecast looked so promising. TV, photographers and reporters arrived at Ston Easton Park during the morning and the trio were kept busy answering questions and posing, rather improbably, at the food and champagne bedecked table which was, at one point, hoisted onto the flimsy foot bridge spanning the haha. It was a tiring day, made harder by virtue of the fact that we could not tell anyone about the next day’s plan. Like all trials, we hoped to conduct this away from the spotlight of media attention.
Well before dawn on the morning of 11th May 2005 all the elements of the operation were in place. The balloon launch team, run by Clive Bailey, were in place at Ashton Court in Bristol, accompanied by Gilo with the underslung table/chairs combo, Russel West the photographer, Phill Elston to oversee safety and the three main players, Bear, Alan and Hempie.
Meanwhile, I was airborne with pilot Matthew Litten in a diesel-powered Cessna from Kemble, bound for Ashton Court to capture the launch and flight, whilst back at Ston Easton Park the remainder of the team waited on tenterhooks. Approaching Bristol at 1500 ft we expected to easily pick out G-MUMM from the surroundings, but it proved much harder than we anticipated to spot in the low early morning light. Suddenly though, it emerged out of the thin mist, surrounded by a host of support and tethering vehicles and a veritable army of helpers. In the Cessna we were in radio communication with the launch site and with David Hempleman-Adams, the pilot, as well as with Ian Hurst at the Met Office at RAF Lyneham, constantly monitoring the weather. Becasue this was intended as a test we did not have a target time to drop the parachutists over Ston Easton Park, so at around 07:15 G-MUMM was freed from its tethers and lifted off into the early morning sunlight. Suddenly it looked huge as it slipped silently over Bristol. Worryingly, G-MUMM headed south west as it gained height, heading straight down the Bristol Channel and out towards the Western Approaches and the vast, unforgiving Atlantic Ocean! That wasn’t supposed to happen.
As we circled G-MUMM taking pictures we listened to the RAF Met team, issuing weather reports at regular intervals, and noted that as the balloon climbed, so the prevailing wind at different altitudes backed round. From a predominantly north-easterly at the take off point, the wind shifted by degrees as the balloon climbed through 12,000 ft until it had backed almost 90 degrees. Thus G-MUMM’s flight path described a large anti-clockwise route, first down the Bristol Channel before turning back towards Somerset and eventually, at the time when Bear and Alan were ready to make their return to earth, exactly over Ston Easton Park. Remarkable!
Sadly though, by 12,000 ft our asthmatic diesel Cessna was running out of breath and we found ourselves unable to keep pace with G-MUMM’s increasing rate of climb. Disappointed that we wouldn’t be there to record the vital moments of the venture, we were forced to break away and return to base.
Meanwhile, aboard G-MUMM, the trio were going on to oxygen and listening to the same Met reports that we had been monitoring in our aircraft. As G-MUMM approached 25,000 ft, with temperatures dipping to minus 40° Celsius, Alan and Bear came off the on-board oxygen system and connected to their own personal oxygen systems, preparatory to abseiling down to the table slung below. At one point Hempie had a minor panic when his oxygen supply failed briefly, but that was soon sorted out.
First, Alan clambered over the rim of the basket and prepared to abseil down to the table below. The ropes were icy and he slipped, becoming entangled momentarily before regaining his composure. Remember, none of this had ever been tested; not on the ground nor in the air! Touching down on the table Alan was disconcerted when the table flipped over, leaving him hanging by his line in space. In the ensuing drama his personal oxygen supply became disconnected but, with hardly a pause, Alan regained his equilibrium and managed to right the table. The centre of gravity of the narrow table had never really been given any thought in the planning, but now it began to look as if it would create a significant problem. Only time would tell.
Once Alan had sorted himself out, Bear’s turn came to duplicate the operation. Guided by Alan below him the task turned out to be easier than anticipated and by careful distribution of their weight, they were able to finally sit down at opposite sides of the table. So far, so good!
To accomplish the record a three course meal had to be eaten and a loyal toast to the Queen had to be made. The meal, carefully prepared by Belinda Thorn, was carried in an aluminium suitcase attached to the base of the table’s structure. The champagne bottle, for reasons of safety and compliance with CAA rules, was empty, made of plastic and bolted to the table! Nothing of any significant weight was left free to fall off inadvertently. After some degree of manoeuvring, the meal was finally freed from its container and Bear and Alan consumed it, removing their oxygen masks between mouthfuls. Once the toast had been made all the detritus had to be secured in the container, prior to the duos departure by parachute.
Because G-MUMM was not permitted to ascend into a higher air corridor, Hempie had to start a gentle descent from 25,000 ft before Bear and Alan leapt off. The act of removing the equivalent of about 25 stone from the balloon would cause it, under normal circumstances, to ascend rapidly, breaking the altitude barrier. Thus, by dumping hot air and putting the balloon into a gentle descent, when the pair jumped off the balloon would initially stabilise and then start to climb before Hempie would be able to control the climb and eventually start back down again. The winds had been favourable and at the appointed time G-MUMM was at the correct altitude, well within the imaginary inverted cone with its point on the DZ at Ston Easton, that would allow the pair to freefall, deploy their parachute canopies and glide safely back to the DZ. For a mere ‘rehearsal’ it was going very well.
Aware that the table was inherently wildly unstable, Bear and Alan mirrored their actions on opposite sides as they prepared to jump. Standing up and shuffling round the table they eventually felt comfortable enough to count down for their jump.
Unseen by the crowd below, they stepped into space and went into a HALO - High Altitude Low Opening - freefall descent, showered by a large portion of uneaten meal cascading down around them, finally deploying their canopies at around 3500 ft above Ston Easton Park. On the ground, photographers Russel West and John Robert Young captured the action as Bear and Alan finally arrived under canopy high over the DZ. With inch perfect accuracy, each landed on the centre of cross marking the DZ, to the tumultuous applause of the crowd.
The record had been achieved, but by mistake! No observers from the Guiness Book of Records were there because we had never imagined that this was anything more than a proving exercise! In fact the whole adventure had to be embargoed so that we could repeat it on the appointed day, in front of GH Mumm and the media!
From Rehearsal to Success