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From on high

As the sun rose over the beach a lone fisherman witnessed an extraordinary sight. Three figures appeared over the dunes and began busying themselves with a cross. Could this be some sort of religious ritual? Certainly the one who appeared to be in charge wore a beard and could be the High Priest. The blond young man acted as a Novice would. While the third member of the sect sat chanting out of time, out off time.

Then, from the distant West came a strange roaring noise. Not just one roar, but a series of different pitches and lengths. Was it demons that were coming? The fisherman froze, too scared to break cover.

When the first appeared his fear changed to awe. A great bulbous green craft with what appeared to be a man on board. Then a second, which was blue. Within minutes the air was full of these craft bobbing up and down, some going forth and back while others sat stationary over the water, watching. Then all became clear as the green craft made his offering off pink gift upon the white cross. The fisherman realized that within the craft were students of the High Priest. And each individually laid forth their gift. And the Novice of the High Priest measured the distance of those offerings. They were of great value because the one made by the white craft, which had been cast upon the water was retrieved by a diver who came on the beckoning of the High Priest.

Once their offerings had been made each craft leaped with joy into the high sky and traveled off East, traversing the prevailing winds. When they had all left the High Priest, chanting Priest and Novice gathered up their cross and offerings and disappeared behind the dunes.

When later the local Ranger Steve Webster, arrived at his hut the fisherman told him his tale. The Ranger said that he had been visited by one of the sect a few days earlier. He had been assured no birds nest, lizard or other creature would be harmed but they begged usage of the beach. Which request he had granted. Steve also judged the fisherman to be venerably stoned.

So ended the sixth task of the MHBC (Mid Hants Balloon Club) Grand Prix Training weekend. Such event having been blessed with sunshine and fair winds during the weekend of 17th and18th June.

The MHBC had requested, at the Icicles Meet, assistance from the Competition Club to run this event. Chief Observer Rupert Stanley and Pilot Andy Booth had stepped forward and volunteered. At the end of the First Grand Prix Rupert had borrowed all the necessary hardware from the Competition Club.

Both Andy and Rupert arrived at the venue, a newly opened exclusive Hotel Groomes set in 183 acres of farmland www.groomes.co.uk on the Friday night and set up said equipment. While Andy arrived early and went flying with local pilots, Rupert arrived later and found he needed a GPS to find his way out of his room. Too many doors apparently.

By four fifteen the following morning Andy, Rupert and Alan Hall, the MHBC organizer, were pouring over the weather charts which predicted a southerly wind. As none of those present wished to nominate Farnborough Airfield as a Judge Declared Goal they quickly agreed to move the launch site to the Flying Bull at Rake which lay to the South of the competition area.

Six of the seven entries arrived at the briefing room which was based in a barn by 5.00am and took their allocated straw bails. Present were Nick Bettin, Robert Carrel, Ian Chawick, Alan Hall, Gary Madelin and Howard, Pete Gooch having been forced to put work issues before pleasure. Mike woodcock, another competition pilot, arrived to assist the team and was invited to fly with Ian.

Andy briefed the pilots on the tasks for the first flight, a Judge Declared Goal to be placed on Longmoor Military Camp followed by a Fly-on intentionally keeping it simple to break in the pilots gently. He then went on to explain how best to attain a result from the Fly-on. For those that donít know a Fly-on is a target minor road junction, nominated by the pilot, the coordinates of which are placed on the first marker before it is dropped hopefully on the target. Hum, was that clear? Rupert explained what he needed from the observers and what to do with Loggers and Markers. And the whole ensemble dispatched South.

The pilots approached the problem of inflating five balloons on a compact site with maturity and launched with sensible spacing between themselves. Robert had unfortunately injured his back and elected not to fly. Most kept it low at first to keep them left of the Target, a strategy which allowed for the change in direction when they all made the required climb to clear an SA. Only Howard did the job properly and was rewarded with little chance of getting close enough to the goal to throw his marker. The different choices of Fly-on then assured the pack split. Ian decided he was enjoying the flight so much that he would not land until his tanks were empty. The area of Map 186 can be challenging some times.

But all returned safely, or so it appeared, to sample chunky bacon butties provided by our amiable host Peter Dale of Groomes and his extended family. Mike did not complain about the mysterious injury he had incurred while packing away Ianís envelope. When the results were announced Ian had taken a slim lead over Nick. But Nicks plan for the rest of the day being to attend a family wedding made it difficult for him to rectify this situation. As Mikeís day progressed his knee grew to the size of a football. The problem was eventually diagnosed at Accident and Emergency as a snake bite. Ouch.

Saturday evening and the prevailing wind is still from the south. So itís back to The Flying Bull. The competition team takes a final wind reading on site and Longmoor Military Camp is within the window again. MHBC having spent so much time getting permission to use surrounding military sites it was not boring, but rewarding, to be heading for this territory again.

For me, flying Peters Wife and her Daughter this seemed like a perfect flight. Their home Groomes was on track using high level winds after the initial drop in Longmoor. But on a fly-on you put the coordinates of your target destination on the first marker. So if that is lost so is your opportunity to score on the second target. Following me this time? And my first drop was wide but due to the enthusiasm of Andy, with a shin cutting run through the woods and resultant retrieval of my marker, our destination was officially declared. Shame it was outside of the stipulated maximum distance.

But if we forget this point the exhilaration of the family at Groomes was there for all to see as five balloons bombed their Hotel and surrounding fields. So not too many yards to drive for the post flight beer and Howard has made up for the morning and won the Judge Declared Goal and Elbow while Gary made number one in the Fly On.

Sunday morning early. The wind reader is showing in a broad band between 400 and 1000 feet a jet from the West. Brave decision from Andy to launch from Groomes and use the jet to avoid nasty territory. The competitors all inflate together but seem reluctant to be first into the air. Eventually one jumps and makeís their way to become part of the fishermanís tale.

Most go for the direct route to the target fighting their way between the Sensative Areas. I decide flying to the south is right, high over and clear of these areas, then down low, out of the jet and in to the prevailing winds. I am telling my passenger, Peter our host that I have them stuffed. It works great until I stall in the cold air above the pond. Apparently the next move would have been to ascend to 2000 feet and get the upper prevailing wind to push me closer. But thatís the point of the training weekend and I only learn that later. Believing I can save the day with a whirly wind shot I wind up the marker and let it fly. Wrong, initial trajectory is good but then it stalls and falls in the water.

As I witnessed Nick has dropped his marker within the bounds of the white target and Ian got pretty close. Itís the fly-on that settles the score with Ian hitting the square and Nick electing not to drop his marker in some ones back garden. Waking the owner to retrieve it, at 7.00am on a Sunday morning, not being a good plan.

At the presentation Ian Chadwick gets the Moet Champaign for first place, Gary the chocolates for second and Peter (probably unfairly given his work pressures) the wooden spoon. But that was not what it was about. OK the weather gods shone on us most rarely. But the team made it a chance to experience what great fun competition ballooning can be. To Andy Booth, Rupert Stanley and Mike Woodcock we owe much thanks. Also to our outstanding host Peter Dale, his family and the venue which is Groomes.

Talk to the Competition Club and if you are lucky, you can experience some of the same.

balloons high over target

Howard having chosen the right route to the target. Note the white balloon stranded over the lake and the two swimmers by the waters edge

balloons approaching target

Be they monsters coming over the hill

three balloons in one space

Ian, Garry and Nick taking the eastern route to the target. Unfortunatley for him Garry changed his mind, went high and South ending up over the lake with me

balloons in cold air over lake

Three of us about to come to a grinding halt over the lake

frogman retrieves marker

Would that be my marker in the frogmans hand?

Groomes from on high

Overhead view of Groomes where the competition training weekend was based

start of competition flight

View from my balloon as Garry Nick and Ian get airbourne

serious competitors in Dursley

Real competition as the Grand Prix at Dursley gets under way in 2006. Note the teardrop shape of some of the balloons. Allows them to ascend and descend faster