Travel: British Rail? Forget it ..: Martin Scudamore climbs into a wicker basket and heads for the heavens

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The Independent Travel
There can be few more pleasurably surreal sights than that of a hot-air balloon drifting like a giant light-bulb across the still sky of a summer evening. It is a stately, dignified means of travel, free from timetables and deadlines.

Ballooning is completely useless if you want to go anywhere in particular, each flight literally being at the mercy of the wind. Don't even ask about the chance of a return journey.

But just imagine looking down upon England a thous-and feet below as you stand on a flimsy wicker floor, leaning over the side of a basket. The land is green velvet, studded with toy houses and trees. Insect people crane their necks to follow your progress across the sky.

You might expect your stomach to turn a little, at least. Yet there is no sense of giddiness - perhaps because the floor moves with you. Or maybe the lack of perspective as you look down - different from peering over a building or cliff, where you see the side receding - allows you to consider the drop with equanimity.

There is a wonderful sense of closeness with the ground, no barrier such as an aircraft window separating you from smells and sounds. But the distance feels unreal, as if stepping out would leave you magically in suspended animation, not plummeting downwards.

Our flight was from Dane End, a village off the A10 in Hertfordshire. The pilot first checks the wind direction by releasing a helium-filled toy balloon, giving passengers and relatives the chance to joke, 'what a swindle, I thought it would be much bigger than that,' and dispel pre-flight nerves.

Technology has yet to produce a titanium/graphite/carbon fibre compound to replace the trusty wicker basket, which is strong, light and cheap. It is also flexible, letting it absorb energy by deforming a little, then springing back to shape. (Meteorologists have used expanded cardboard but their balloons are sent up only once).

One-time landing problems, with people being thrown together, or even hurt by fuel canisters, have been solved by splitting the rectangular basket into compartments. One end is sectioned off for the pilot, instruments and fuel. The rest of the space is divided lengthways into two for passengers. Rope grab-handles enable everyone to get close to the side to look out. A long side is designated the 'front for navigation and landing.

Ballooning is supremely peaceful because you have the same velocity as the wind; the impression is of being in still air. Unfortunately, to keep the whole unlikely edifice aloft, it is necessary every couple of minutes to heat air in the 'envelope using blasts from gas burners above head height. The noise and heat detract from the tranquility, but in between burns, you are floating near heaven.

You can be reassured, too, that this oldest form of aviation is one of the safest. A balloon is a registered aircraft, controlled by the Civil Aviation Authority. It must comply with the same maintenance and safety-check regulations as a British Airways jet. Your pilot will not be a bored hang-glider or bungee jumper trying out a new sport.

The minimum licensing qualification is 75 hours' flight time, but reputable operators would not employ a pilot with fewer than 200 hours. Balloonists share a radio frequency allocated to sports aviation, and contact control towers when flying near airports.

It is, however, all delightfully informal. It is customary for passengers to help to inflate the envelope, which arrives in a large holdall. After attaching it to the basket with steel wires, we all pulled the giant blue nylon bag out across the field and then held open the throat for it to be filled with air from a large petrol-driven fan. When it was nearly full the pilot began heating the air while the balloon lay on its side like a huge dead mushroom.

Once the envelope had gained enough bouyancy to lift the basket upright - at this stage it was still tethered - we all scrambled in. The rope mooring was cast off and without any sensation of motion, we were soon at 800ft and drifting lazily away.

The pilot keeps in radio contact with the recovery vehicle driver, who has one eye on the map and the other on the rapidly disappearing balloon. On good days, the driver will keep in sight of pilot and passengers during most of the flight, and be waiting for them on touchdown. We didn't see the Land-Rover from take-off to landing, although madly waving relatives of some passengers criss-crossed our path.

The best conditions are when the wind is light; ideal flights are in early morning or early evening when air currents are manageable. There are worse things in life than to meet at a pub on a summer evening, enjoy an hour's drifting across the countryside before repairing to the bar for the swapping of (inflated) ballooning stories.

Winter is the best time. There are no undesirable thermals, visibility is better, and the burners are used less often. Even cold is rarely a problem. In summer the temperature in the basket is about five degrees warmer than on the ground; in winter, once you are above the cold air hugging the earth, the difference is even more noticeable.

Landing is the most fun. During flight the balloon can be rotated, using vents in the envelope. As the final few feet of altitude are lost - remember, the balloon is still skimming along at wind speed - the basket touches down along the bottom of the leading side.

Passengers lean backwards and the basket tips over into a semi-controlled slide as the envelope deflates, coming to rest with everyone lying in their compartments like bottles.

We lay with our heads in a field of grass as the pilot waited to make sure no rogue gusts would start us moving again. Then we struggled out, laughing at those in the top compartment who now had to climb down.

Our flight lasted just over an hour and we covered nearly 10 miles. At one time we were close to 2,000ft; later we almost brushed crops. Considerable skill is needed to judge a manoeuvre like that; the balloon's volume is almost 210,000 cubic feet and the total weight was nearly 10 tons. Our flight used 35 gallons of propane - typically the balloon carries four 14-gallon tanks.

We folded up the envelope as it lay in the field - the flame-retardant nylon apparently impervious to snagging on prickly grass.

The pilot can usually land without damaging crops; often, as here, selecting a handy set-aside field. When the surprised landowner arrived, he joined us in a celebratory glass of champagne.

HOW TO BOOK YOUR PLACE IN THE SKY

Flights from Dane End are organised by Ballooning World (071-706 1021). They cost pounds 99 per person weekdays/pounds 125 at weekends. The company also offers City Skyline flights from Blackheath and Alexandra Palace, pounds 150.

Ballooning, a means of public transport, is not subject to VAT.

The British Balloon and Airship Club, Wellington House, Lower Icknield Way, Longwick, near Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire HP27 9RZ (0604 870025) produces a directory of companies which arrange flights.

(Photograph omitted)

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