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Issue 9 - Thesky'sthelimit

Scotland Magazine Issue 9
July 2003

 

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Thesky'sthelimit

HOWBETTERTOENJOYSCOTLAND'SLUSHLANDSCAPESTHANFROMAHOT-AIRBALLOON?LOUISEGILBERTMEETSGRAEMEHOUSTONOFSCOTAIRBALLOONS

Imaginebeinghandedahot-airballoononyourbirthdayandnothavingalicencetoflyit.Anunlikelyscenario?Wellthat’sjustwhathappenedtoGraemeHoustononeauspiciousdayin1988,adaythatthewindschangedthedirectionofhislifeforever.

Today,GraemeisownerandoperatorofScotairBalloons,Scotland’sfirsthot-airballoonflightcompany.BasedinLanarkshire,closetothequaintcountryvillageofBiggar,itseemstheperfectplacetofloatoffaboveScotland’sgreenvalleys.

Itwasn’thardforGraemetopickalocation.“Scotland’shome,soIknewScotairhadtobebasedhere.IlaidoutalltheOrdnanceSurveymapsforScotland,andlookedlongandhardateverysinglearea.Therearelessrestrictions,dangerareasandpowerlineshere,soIstartedtoflytheballooninthispartoftheworldtotestitout.Notonlyisitamazinglyscenic,butit’salsoveryrural.Itotallyfellforthewholearea.”

Lookingatthesurroundingcountryside,it’seasytoseewhyGraemewasimmediatelysmittenwiththisplace.ScotairBalloonsflyovertheClydeValleywiththeriversnakingbelowandpartingthesurroundingwoodlands.Astheballoonrisesto2,500feet,therollinghillsdropaway,thecontoursflattenoutandthelandscapebecomesapatchworkquiltofgreenandgold.Anaverageflightwillcoveradistanceofupto15miles,andtakesaboutonehour.Graemedescribestheexperience:

“Verytranquil,verypeacefulandrelaxing.It’ssurrealreally,andthereisnosensationofmovementatall.Youcan’tfeelanything.Youjustmovewiththewind.There’snotevenabreezeonyourface.It’sverystill,noturbulence,andyoujustdrift.”

Intheearlydaysofthebusiness,Graemethoughthewasdoingsomethingwrong.Ascendingintothesky,theexcitedchatterofthepassengerswouldevaporateandsilencewouldsettleinthebasket.Ittookhimawhiletorealisethathisclientshadsimplyenteredablissfulstateofquietwonderment.

Graemehastreatedhundredsofpeopletomanysuchrelaxinghours,hoveringaboveScotland,absorbingherdeliciousviews.Butthethingtorememberaboutballooningisthatyouarealwaysatthemercyofthewinds.Itismothernaturewhoisultimatelyincontrol.

“Thewindscangettrickysometimes,”saysGraeme,explainingthatheliumballoonsareusedbeforeeveryflighttotestwinddirectionandspeedwhichhelpsinplottingthecourse.

“Thisareaisunforgivingifyoumakeamistakewiththewindortheweather.Ifyouheadintothehills,youcan’tchangeyourmindandcomeback.Onceaballoonisheadingaway,it’soff,andthereisnothingyoucandoaboutit,soI’malwaysverycautiousofwherethewindsaregoing,andwhatspeedthey’removingat.Ifit’safastwind,I’vegottoreallyworkmysocksoff,especiallywiththedelay.”

Theballoonsaresolarge–upto120feettalland90feetwide–thatthereisa15to20-seconddelaybetweenanyactionapilottakeswiththeburnersandtheheatreachingthetopoftheballoon.Graemenotes,“Thismeansyou’vegottobethinkingwellaheadofyourselfallthetime.Itcansometimesbehellonastick.Thepressureisintenseifthewindisfast.”

Attheotherextreme,therearedayswhenthereislittleornowind.

“Onahotday,thermalswilldevelop,andthefieldscooldownlaterintheevening.Butasthedayprogresses,theheatintensifieswithinbuildings.Ifit’sastillday,theaircirculatesaroundthebuildingsandwillcreateabitofavortex,”Graemeexplains.

“Therewasoneparticulardaywhenweexperiencedjustthat.IhadtriedtoflyoverSkipton,butIendedupstuckabovethetown.NomatterwhatIdid,Iwasn’tabletoclearthetown.I’dheadout,towardsthelastrowofhouses,thinkIwasclear,andthenatthelastminutetheairwouldspiralmeroundandpullmebackin.Itjustkeptdoingthisforthewholeflight.Iwastrappedwithnoescaperoute.”

Allthis,withabasketfulofpeople.Graemecontinues,“Iwasrunningshortonfuelandlookingaroundforaplacetoland.AllIcouldseewasaschool,andIthought,‘I’llhavetodumpitinthere.’Wecameoverarowofterracedhousesandtherewasasteepdropintotheschoolplayground.Ipulledthedeflationsystem,toldeveryonetoholdontight,andwedroppedontothepavement,rightatthesideofthebuilding.AnothertwoorthreefeetalongandIwouldhavegonestraightthroughtheroof!”

ApavementisnottheonlydistinctiveplaceGraemehaslanded.Whenhe’sintheair,heisalwaysonthelookoutforadecentpieceofpaddockwithenoughroomtodeflatetheenormousballoon,preferablywithoutpigsorsheep,whichareunsurprisinglyspookedbyspace-likeobjectsdescendingonthem.

“Ononeflight,”Graemerecalls,“Ilookeddownandsawwhatlookedlikeabigfield.”Perfect?Notquite.ItturnedoutthatGraemehaddescendednexttoHighlandSpringMineralWater’ssecretspring!

“Therewasahugeuproar,andIwastoldIshouldn’tbelandingintheirtop-secretplace.Isaid,well,it’snotasecretanymore,isit?”Graemelaughs.

Suchclandestineplacesarenotmarkedonmaps,forobviousreasons,andthishasresultedinsomeexperiencesthatcouldcomestraightoutofMissionImpossible.

“Iactuallylandedinamilitaryzoneonce,”Graemeconfides.

“Itlookedlikeanindustrialzonetome,withabigfield,butnosoonerhadIlandedthanateamofcarszoomedinaroundus,bluelightsflashingeverywhere.Igotintoabitofbotherthatday,lotsofquestionsfromtheauthoritiesthinkingthatIwasspyingorhadsomeotherulteriormotive.Ihadtolaugh.Theballoonissoslowmoving.Don’tbothertosendateamofcarsboys,justsendabike!”hejokes.

“Itwasquiteaninterestingexperiencethough,gettingtakenintoaweeroomandbeingquestionedbyuniformsaboutallsorts.”JustaswellGraemehassuchaphilosophicalapproachtolife.Butthen,ifyouspendmostdaysfloatingserenelyabovetheearth’ssurface,abitofexcitementonlandisprobablyawelcomechange.

Whenhefirstbecameinvolvedinhot-airballooning,Graemehadnoideathathewasdestinedforsomanyuniqueadventures.

“Atthattime,”Graemeadmits,“Iwasnotinterestedinhot-airballoonsatall.”HeworkedatGlasgowairportforLoganair,inapositionGraemedescribesas‘generaldogsbody’.Hisdream,backthen,wasfarremovedfromanythingtodowithflying.

“Gettingintoballooningwaspurelyanaccident.Iwastryingtobeapopstar.I’dleaveworkanddrivestraightintotherehearsalroomstomeettherestoftheband.WeusedWetWetWet’srecordingstudioinGlasgow.”

“Ourstuffwasplayedontheradioanditwasareallyexcitingtime.”

Excitingitmayhavebeen,butitdidn’tcomparetoGraeme’sfirstflightinLoganair’shot-airballoon.Graemeinitiallyboardedtheballoonwithanunusualagenda.

“Itwasawayofgettingoutofsomework,maybeimpressingsomegirls.Anditworked,Ifoundmywife!”GraememetLisawhenshewasareceptionistinaballoonfactory.

“Asitturnedout,thatfirstflightwasbrilliant,intoxicating.”

Graemesmilesattherecollection.“Thepilotofferedtoteachmetofly,andIjumpedatthechance.”

Butafteronlyafewweeksoflessons,Graemereceivedaphonecallfromthepilot.“HetoldmehewasleavingLoganairandhadbeenadvisedtoclearouthisdesk.Hesaid,‘Thejob’sallyours’,andgavemeallthelogbooks.Itwasgreat,my24thbirthdayandIhadabrand-newballoontofly.”

Anenviablepositiontobein,buttherewasstillonemajorproblem.Graemedidn’thavehispilot’slicence.Adeterminedman,hewasn’tgoingtoletthatstophim.

“Iwentflat-out–everyopportunityIcouldget,Iwentflyingtobuildupmyhours.”Withinashorttime,GraemewaslicensedtoflyhighacrossScotland’smagnificentlandscape.GraemeflewwithLoganairforacoupleofyearsbeforesecuringajobwithaballooncompanyintheYorkshireDales.

“MystintintheDaleswasanamazinglearningcurveandahellofalotoffun.I’llneverforgetit.”

ItwasduringthattimethatGraemebegantothinkabouthisfuture.ThesafarisinKenyahavetheworld’slargestballooningoperationsandGraemeconsideredmovingoutthere.However,hehadrecognisedanichemarketmuchclosertohome.PeopleweredrivingdownfromScotlandtoflywithhiminYorkshire.Hefeltconfidentthathecouldusethistohisadvantage.

“AtthetimeIstartedupmycompany,Iknewitwouldn’tfail.It’sastrangething,butIknewtherewasnopossibilitythatitwouldn’twork,becausetherewasnobodyinScotlanddoingthis.”

SinceformingScotairBalloons,Graemehasflowninternationally,inItaly,France,Germany,California,PortugalandSpain,butnothingcomparestoflyinginScotland.

“Itbeatsanything.Insomecountries,allyoucanseebelowarehouses.”

Scotlandcertainlyprovidesvariedscenery,frombubblingstreamsandrollinghillstohistoriccastlesandcountryvillages.Graemedeclaresthat,withoutadoubt,hisfavouriteplacetoflyisoverLochLomond,whichhedescribesas“stunningandtotallypicturesque.”

Graemeconfessesoneofhisdreams:“I’dliketoflyacrossthenorthofScotlandanddriftoverthejaggymountainsoftheHighlands,tolandhereinthefieldsoftheClydeValley.”

Whatofhisdreamstobecomeapopstar?Well,theyhaven’tbeenblownawayaltogether.Thetwodrumkitstuckedawayinhisgaragearetestamenttothat.