The Big Day only really started out as a rehearsal, to make sure that everything would work according to plan for the official flight late in June 2005.
However, even during the best English summer, it is rare to find a day when the weather is so perfect that it would be foolish to ignore the possibilities.
And so we didn’t!
The result was that Bear, Alan and Hempie broke the world record for the Highest Formal Dinner Party!
When the day of the full dress rehearsal dawned exceptionally fine, the initial plan, encompassing a climb to 15,000ft, a three course meal at a dinner table set for two under the balloon, followed by a parachute descent to Ston Easton Park, was quickly shelved in order to take advantage of the perfect conditions. The green light was given to attempt the full record from 25,000ft and the balloon launch party departed to Ashton Court in Bristol before dawn.
As the air-to-air stills photographer, I covered operations from a diesel-powered Cessna, arriving over Ashton Court and covering the launch and the initial climb out to 12,000ft, at which point it was found that the balloon’s rate of climb was accelerating rapidly whilst that of the asthmatic aircraft was diminishing equally quickly. In the aircraft we broke away, missing the important abseil down from the balloon by Bear & Alan, as well as the meal and parachute jump from the basket.
The duo accomplished their attempt without major mishaps and parachuted into Ston Easton Park on time, with pin-point accuracy, where photographers Russel West and captured their arrival. However, the attempt had to be embargoed as the sponsors and the press were absent from what was only originally intended to be a practice flight. In addition, it was felt that the vital air-to-air stills and video should be attempted on a special flight in the next available good weather slot. This was achieved on 24th June 2005, some five days before the “official” attempt was to be undertaken in front of the sponsors and press. Sadly, bad weather precluded a launch on that day and sponsors and press had to be content with a parachute drop by Bear and Alan from a helicopter, along with pre-recorded video and stills from the photo-sortie edited with the real record attempt.