Surprisingly for someone who is scared of heights, hot air balloons have always fascinated me. There’s something just a little bit magical about them, and the fact that they are only spotted on calm, sunny days or in exotic locations only adds to their allure. Going up in a hot air balloon has always been a bucket list experience that someday I wanted to do, but I had always assumed it was something I would do much later in life. I was incredibly lucky when last year I was given a hot air balloon experience for Christmas.
After I had gotten over my initial delight and excitement, I was suddenly quite scared. What if something went wrong with the Balloon? What if we went off course and landed somewhere really dangerous? What if I didn’t enjoy it and spent the whole time cowering at the bottom of the basket? At least I wasn’t going to be alone; James would be joining me, along with his brother and girlfriend.
When should I book my hot air balloon flight?
It took us four attempts to actually go up in the air, and I think that was pretty lucky. I know someone who had to wait years before they took to the skies. I’d advise trying to book your flight as soon as possible, and identifying several dates that you could try. I’d also try and make sure you book a flight that is either refundable, or the voucher date will keep extending if you’ve been prevented from flying. I can’t imagine anything worse than having one attempt and it not working, leaving you with an empty pocket and no experience of going up in the balloon.
The first date we went for was in March and I was fully expecting not ot fly in the month known for its winds. Sure enough, a storm was forecast the weekend we were due to go up so we had to rethink. We tried April next, and managed to hit another storm which was frustrating. We opted for a June date and this was the most disappointing as it felt like we were closest to going up. They didn’t give us a message until just before the deadline and then it was decided that the wind speed was just that bit too fast. Cue attempt number four, this time a midweek date in July.
I was fully expecting us not to go up, particularly as the morning flights had been cancelled due to the thunderstorms the night before. However for the first time when phoning the flight information line we were given a meeting time and location rather than an apologetic message. We were going to go up!
What to expect from the flight
When we arrived we had to check in with the pilot and had a short safety briefing to listen to which covered preparing the Balloon, take off and landing. It made me start feeling nervous all over again. I really didn’t like the sound of being dragged along the ground as we landed!
The balloon team asked for volunteers to help them get the Balloon ready for flight, filling it with cold air, and then hot air. If you want to help out at this stage then make sure you’re wearing long sleeves and trousers – this is recommended for flying in the balloon anyway but is the first instruction to be ignored when it’s the middle of a heatwave! James was able to help get the Balloon set up and although his arms were aching the next day, it really added to his experience by being able to help.
Once the balloon had been inflated with hot air and the basket was upright, it was time to get into the basket. The basket was split into four sections for passengers, with a maximum of four fitting in each segment. There were footholds in the side of the basket to help clamber in, but it was a little trickier than it sounds. Once we were in the balloon we were asked to sit down until after we had taken off. Sitting down I couldn’t see anything other than the basket which reassured me that if it all got a bit much I would have somewhere to sit and hide.
Flying over Bristol
Before I knew it we were up in the air, a feeling not dissimilar to going up in a cable car. Once we were off the ground we were allowed to stand, and could see the people and trees beneath us shrinking as we climbed higher into the sky.
The best thing about flying over Bristol having lived there for two years was being able to recognise the landmarks from the air. We could see the SS Great Britain, Cabot Tower, Clifton Downs and the Wills Memorial Building. I spotted the building where I work, and we flew directly over the top of our flat which was a weird experience. We saw the Clifton Suspension Bridge from the air, and flew over Bristol Zoo. This was particularly funny when we realised the small pale pink dots we could see in the zoo were flamingos in the flamingo enclosure.
As it was such a clear day, we could see right across the Severn Estuary across to Wales, and over the gentle hills of North Somerset. It sounds silly, but I was surprised how far we could see, and we were able to turn around and take in the views on each side, unlike when you fly over in a plane.
How did I find the height? Not as bad as I expected. The basket came quite high up on me and therefore this helped me to feel quite secure. The only time I felt a little worried was when we flew over Avon Gorge because it suddenly felt like a much bigger drop beneath us, but for the most part I was fine and could just enjoy the view.
Landing the Balloon
Coming into land was an interesting experience as we got much closer to the tips of people’s houses than I had realised we would. Dogs were barking and people were calling up and waving at us, with a few watching their chimney pots rather nervously. We landed in a park where another balloon had already landed, and there were plenty of people around enjoying the evening sunshine who were only too happy to help us deflate and pack up the balloon.
The landing itself, the bit I had been most nervous about, was completely fine. It was very gentle and we landed upright, so I didn’t have to worry about dragging along the ground. Once we had safely landed and had scrambled out of the balloon, it was time to help pack it up.
It was only at this point that I appreciated just how heavy the balloon itself is, given the number of us it was taking to pick it up and put it back into its bag. Once we’d packed everything away, we were presented with certificates and driven back to the original meeting point by the ground team.
Would I recommend the experience?
I would definitely recommend the opportunity to fly in a hot air balloon! The whole experience was slightly surreal and it felt afterwards a little as if it had all been a dream, but it was very exciting and the views were incredible! Whilst I would love to do something like a hot air balloon safari, or a sunrise hot air balloon ride in a very picturesque location, there’s actually a lot to be said for flying over somewhere you’re familiar with as you’ll see it in a completely new way.
A lot of people I’ve spoke to about it since have said it’s something they’d love to do, but they worry that they would be too scared and therefore wouldn’t want to spend the money on it. I was nervous about it, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I was scared. Of the four of us who had gone up together, three of us were scared of heights and all three of us were fine, which I would hope is a pretty good indication that it was OK.
I would very happily go up in a hot air balloon again, and had a wonderful experience on my flight with Bristol Balloons.
Have you ever been in a hot air balloon? How did you find the experience?