When you fly a hot air balloon, says Alex Harvey, it’s a good idea to keep a bottle of wine in the 4×4 used by your back-up team.
“One of the difficulties with a balloon is that you are going to have to land somewhere,” he explains. “A bottle of wine helps in getting access to the field where the balloon is. Happily, since lockdown farmers and landowners have been very accommodating.”
Attending a seminar on Landowner Relations is on the list in obtaining a pilot’s licence. A minimum of 16 hours flying time is also required. As are exams in meteorology, navigation, airlaw, balloon systems and human performance. Alex, inset, tells me this as we glide south of Sturminster Newton in a two-person basket strung beneath a large black balloon advertising a now defunct Bristol PR company. He bought the balloon, burners and basket from a fellow pilot, obtained his licence and is now adding more hours to qualify as a commercial balloon pilot.
“I hope to do that before next April,” he says.
He will then be able to fly paying passengers across the Blackmore Vale and will possibly be the youngest commercial balloon pilot in the country. Alex, a lad from Penselwood, is 25.
“I love flying – it is something that is so different to anything else in day-to-day life,” he enthuses. “You take off and all the rest disappears. The focus is in the clouds.”
His focus that warm early August evening was also necessarily on staying away from horses, identifying power lines and potential landing fields devoid of animals or crops.
My focus was downwards, watching gaggles of geese scatter in farmyards, trying to identify the water mill near Hammoon, swimming pools in large houses and studying the ridges on Hambledon Hill. Several sharp bursts of LPG from the burners turn heads skywards down below before the peace of floating on air is restored.
After 45 minutes, we begin our descent. The burners are switched off, the top of the balloon vented to let hot air escape and we come into land, brushing through a hedge before hitting the ground, the basket gently toppling over onto its side. Alex calls his mum and two friends in the 4×4 to say we have landed near Farrington and goes in search of the owner who, as it turns out, is on holiday. But happily his house guest has a key to the gate and thinks it’s all great fun. The balloon is rolled into a bag, loaded into a trailer with the basket and gear and we’re away within 30 minutes, leaving her with the wine.
Interviewing somebody in a small hot air balloon basket is actually not that easy, especially when there are views to be seen and profound thoughts to be worked on. So we all went to The Talbot pub in Iwerne Minster, and I asked Alex how his love of balloons took off.
“When I was living in Oxford, I did a couple of flights with Virgin as a passenger and crew. I moved back to the area and was referred to Steve Vining, the Virgin balloon pilot in Dorset. I started crewing for him and realised that this is what I wanted to do.”
More experience was gained, a friendship forged and eventually Alex bought a second-hand balloon off Steve.
“He bought my balloon when he was training and wanted to move it on. Steve has been a rock. I wouldn’t have done it without him.”
Alex works for Wessex Internet and lives in Shaftesbury, keeping his balloon on Steve’s farm outside of Sturminster Newton.
“But it is an expensive hobby,” he acknowledges, as the talk turned to how he might finance his future business.
It transpires that Alex would be very interested to meet a business or investor who would like to spend, say, £40k in return for advertising on a new, larger balloon, with 50 flights guaranteed, promotions and staff competitions.
It would also be great if the investor has land where he could base his new commercial operation. All open to discussion. Running it as a business would also need a number of ground crew beyond parents and friends to help manage the balloon as it is inflated, to drive, then help pack it away.
“It is a very difficult juggling act,” says Alex, with some understatement. But his ambition is serious. “I would hope to make a living out of this. There are not enough pilots at present as so many packed it in over covid – it’s another reason why I am keen to get going. It would be a six-month season here, then flying abroad, maybe Thailand or America.”
Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you all so, so much for the love and appreciation you’ve shown us since we launched the New Blackmore Vale.