Congratulations to Thomas Lee and Holly Skiplorne for their flight from Anglesey to Newbury – 180 miles in 8½ hours.
Pilot – Thomas Lee
Co-pilot – Holly Skiplorne
Witness to launch – Jeremy Hinton
Balloon – G-RENI Kubicek 105
Date – Sunday 27th October
Propane at start – 8 60’s 480 Litres
Propane at finish – Fumes! >5%
Starting location – Llanfair Hall, Dwyran, Anglesey
Finish location – Brock’s Green, just Sth of Newbury.
Start time – 07:30
Finish time – 16:00
Flight time – 8.5 hours
Straight line distance – 180 miles
Average speed – 25mph
Max height flown – 6500ft
Length of drag – 0! Stand up landing!
Witness to landing – Tina Skipworth 07768 917240
Bold text – Thomas’ perspective.Italicised text – Holly’s perspective.
We had both spent the first part of October being rather unwell so only started really looking into a possible long jump towards the middle of the month. Andrew Holly had very kindly agreed to lend us G-RENI, his Renishaw balloon, and so began our daily routine of scouring every weather forecast under the sun trying to find a possible slot. Needless to say October 2019 was proving to be, an uncharacteristically, difficult and unpredictable month where weather was concerned. We’d spot a day with potential only to find the forecast was constantly shifting and changing, sometimes on an hourly basis. If a slot had the potential with direction and speed we’d find it would be impossible due to high winds on the surface or with a high risk of potential rain. Before we knew it October was quickly disappearing and we knew we were running out of time.
On Monday 21st we spotted potential slots around the 25th and we started looking into flying that Friday. Direction was perfect, speed was great but heavy rain was predicted. As the week went on Friday’s and Saturday’s forecasts became increasingly dire but in the background we’d notice Sunday was beginning to look more and more doable; slow but doable. As the week went on we agreed to call Friday off and focus on Sunday instead. On that Friday we both woke up and immediately checked what the weather was doing and were quite relieved to see the torrential rain that was falling.
On the 25th we met at Thomas’s and we started to plan very thoroughly for the flight. To our delight the wind direction had also shifted which meant we could possibly incorporate flying across Snowdon, one of Thomas’s dreams, into the flight. We spent a huge amount of time studying the airspace map planning who we’d need to talk to before and during the flight. We made an ordered list of the radio frequencies we’d need and a script we could read from during the flight. We felt confident that we could avoid any major air space challenges until we reached Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
However we now had some big challenges to overcome. Jeremy Hinton had very kindly agreed to be our driver but we had no additional crew and a 105 with 8 tanks which weighed a ton. We were definitely going to need more crew if we had any chance of getting off the ground. We also had no launch site, which was not ideal.
We knew we ideally wanted to launch from Anglesey in order to get the track across Snowdon and the best track down the country. On Saturday morning Thomas phoned the two military airfields around Anglesey; Valley and Mona, to check that we wouldn’t be in their way if we launched and to see if they knew of any possible launch sites that we could use. They were very accommodating about the flight but couldn’t help us with a launch site.
At this point I found an Anglesey residence page on Facebook and asked them if I could put on a post requesting help with a launch site and additional crew. We were very worried about finding a suitable site as we’d had so much rain and a lot of the fields were water-logged. To our huge surprise a lovely lady called Lucy replied to my post not only offering us use of her field but also offering to find us some people to help us out with the launch. We checked the site on Google maps and felt that it looked reasonably sheltered and it looked an ideal place to launch from.
Now we had a balloon, driver, launch site and additional crew we began to feel slightly more optimistic and called the flight on but neither of us felt particularly confident. Where we were in Gloucestershire there was torrential rain, wind and copious amounts of flooding. The idea we could possibly fly in less than 24hrs was utterly ridiculous. Having said that we felt we had to at least try so we booked overnight accommodation in Anglesey, collected Renishaw and Jeremy, and set off!
As we drove up to Wales the weather began to break. There was a hint of blue sky in the evening and before we knew it we were travelling under the most glorious cloudless sky and beautiful sunset. It really felt like everything was coming together and that fate was dealing us a strong hand.
That night neither of us slept. Thomas because of Jeremy’s snoring and Holly because she couldn’t stop over thinking everything. As we walked to the car that morning quite a large gust of wind hit us and Thomas’s face fell. We immediately started to feel anxious. As we drove to the launch site we seemed to be going to the highest point on the island and our anxiety grew.
Upon arriving at the site we immediately felt a sense of relief. Not only was the field suitable there was also a small army of people there ready to help us. Our host, Lucy, had gone all out in arranging extra help and had even arranged for a photographer to come too. Thomas was able to get onto the field and into position without getting stuck and we were able to get the basket with all 8 tanks in it out without any difficulties.
So now we had an upright balloon and flat calm surface weather. We were actually going to do this.
We launched at 07:30 and began to ascend relatively quickly to make sure we’d be a suitable height when we reached Snowdonia. Looking back over Anglesey was incredible. The sea was visible on both sides of the balloon. It was one of the most magical moments of our lives seeing the sea from one side and the mountains of Snowdonia from another side of a balloon. By 7:42 we’d crossed the Menai Strait and had left Anglesey behind with all of glorious Snowdonia in front of us.
It was so incredible to see Snowdonia below us, after making some beautiful memories there only a month before. We flew right up the length of the Llanberis Pass. This was particularly special for us as this is a very meaningful place to us as a couple. Snowdon itself was shrouded in cloud but it didn’t matter, we knew it was right there next to us. We seemed to follow a gap in the clouds that appeared to have been made just for us. It was beyond spectacular.
At 08:15 Holly had breakfast at 6000 feet above Snowdonia, a decision she later regretted as she felt rather nauseous afterwards. Interestingly I felt the same after mine too! Perhaps we were just over excited. Or maybe the Cornflakes were out of date!
As we crossed Snowdonia we were watching our direction very carefully. We wanted a heading of around 130 degrees to make sure we went South of Birmingham and avoided their airspace. We were cruising; our track was great and our speed was good, averaging around 30kts. We weren’t going to set any speed records, but it was good enough! We were settling into our flight and it was at this point I suggested Holly have some burner time. I knew she’d done a decent portion of her training a few years ago, but in recent years hadn’t had much opportunity to get hands on. Well, we were up here for 8 hours, we may as well use the time constructively! I gave Holly the job of keeping us on the best track and avoiding airspace; nothing too challenging! The balloon was heavily laden and descended quickly and the track kept swinging us towards Birmingham; how hard could it be?!
My initial reaction was to wait for Thomas to tell me to burn and for how long but this didn’t last long. To some extent ballooning is like riding a bike; it is amazing how quickly it comes back to you. Thomas basically told me to try to find the best direction and this is what I tried to do to the best of my ability by ascending and descending until I found the best track. Initially I found this quite challenging. Firstly the balloon was incredibly heavy and would descend rapidly once she was in a descent and secondly I personally found the burner was very temperamental. Firstly it would continue to burn after I’d taken my hand off it for a second or two and secondly every burn seemed to be very inconsistent. I was counting the seconds in my head to try and judge how much burning was required to achieve different rates of climb but found the balloon would do something different every time.
Despite these challenges I soon found myself in a rhythm and was able to keep us on a heading that would take us south of Birmingham. I guess I must have been doing an ok job as Thomas didn’t once intervene, apart to point out that I was in quite a steep descent at one point. We completed several fuel changes while I was on the burner and they seemed to go relatively smoothly. We were mainly using the left side of the burner for the flight but when the fuel ran out on that side, I’d switch to the right, put us in a climb and then Thomas would switch the tank.
As we approached Kidderminster we were shocked to see the extent of the flooding from high above in the balloon. The River Severn had completely burst its banks and the surrounding fields were all underwater. At this point Thomas contacted London Information with our current position, altitude and heading. As we flew across Worcestershire several other pilots would radio in saying they could see our balloon and we found this quite funny, as they were often reiterating our position to ATC moments after we’d done it ourselves! Several light aircraft also approached us including one who waved his wings at us and then did some pretty spectacular acrobatics which were great fun to watch.
As we crossed Worcester I was still on the burner and we started to get ready to do our next fuel change. Up until this point we’d been remarkably relaxed and were feeling increasingly confident but all that was about to change.
Our burner was using liquid propane rather than vapour to light the pilot lights. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem for us, whilst we are more used to flying with vapour pilot lights, however, almost immediately after our fifth fuel change there came a very high pitched whistle coming from the pilot light on the right hand side of the burner. Straight away we both knew something wasn’t right and Thomas quickly investigated it. The next thing we saw was a large ball of flame coming out of the bottom of the burner straight at Thomas’s head. Thomas, to his unbelievable credit, didn’t initially appear phased. He ducked out the way and immediately shut off that side of the burner, bled the system and disconnected the fuel pipe. It was only when he turned to check that I was ok when I saw that he’d gone white as a sheet.
Thomas and I have both had a few scary moments while flying but nothing compares to this for me personally. I can honestly say I was utterly horrified but equally I was also unbelievably proud at the way Thomas had reacted. Looking back on it now I can actually laugh about it. The funniest part for me was that Thomas hadn’t realised that I had seen what had happened. When I was discussing how scary it was he looked shocked and said “you saw that did you?” and me thinking it was hilarious that he thought I could’ve somehow missed it!
But now we only had one working side of the burner and we had to make a decision about whether we should carry on or not. I could see Thomas was incredibly torn and I felt the same way. Part of me just wanted to land right there and then but I also felt that there was a good chance I’d never get back in a basket ever again if we did. Equally this wasn’t just any flight. It was our long jump attempt. We’d already come so far and still had 4 hours worth of fuel. I knew we could achieve so much more if we flew on. By this point we were now flying at around 4,000 ft. We had clear visibility on all sides. We were also over an area of extensive open countryside. The wind speed had also dropped significantly. Taking all of these factors into consideration I knew that if we needed to put the balloon down we could do without much difficulty. I remember saying to Thomas “we’re ok” in a reassuring, we are ok, we can do this, kind of way and he looked back at me and nodded. We made the decision to continue together and I think we both knew we could trust each other to complete the flight safely. I know that if I’d been in the basket with anyone else I’d have requested to land. I also know that Thomas would’ve landed if he’d been solo. But our trust and faith in each other meant we knew that we could carry on.
Having come to terms with loosing most of my eyebrows an hour earlier, it was now time to make contact with Brize Norton. The air traffic as we approached Brize was rather heavy and we were keeping a very close ear to the radio listening to the instructions the air traffic controllers were giving out. I have to say they were unbelievably considerate and went out of their way to assist us. It was funny as, at times, one of the controllers was having to be quite firm with other pilots who weren’t given him accurate details about their own flights, and yet he was incredibly friendly and helpful towards us.
It was at this point every piece of electric equipment we were using to show our heading decided to go on strike and we found ourselves in the middle of Brize airspace with no accurate heading. Holly went back on the burner so I could focus on getting our bearings again! Literally! Brize requested we not fly below 3500ft but this meant our direction would lead us into more difficult airspace later in the flight. I went back to them requesting to stay around 3000ft. At this point the air traffic controller joked “we have an A330 coming in that might be a problem for you” but then went on to say that yes we could descend to 3000ft if we stayed there and kept him updated, which we gratefully did!
At this point in the distance we saw the aforementioned A330 circling around the airport. This was quite a disconcerting sight from our balloon by also very exciting. The air traffic controller came back to Thomas stating that the A330 was going to attempt to land underneath us, but that if he needed to do go around, he would take off again and circle at 2500ft, only around 500ft below us. Thomas and I looked at each other both equally excited to watch this plane land but also hoping he wouldn’t mess it up! Soon afterwards we saw him making his approach and I was able to film him landing perfectly on the runway a few thousand feet below us. It was absolutely incredible moment that just made the flight so much more special. As we flew directly over the airfield he was taxiing directly below us.
We continued fly between around 3000 and 4000ft across Oxfordshire heading directly for Newbury. By now we were on our last tank of fuel and realistically knew we were approaching the end of our flight. It was also getting late in the day and sunset was fast approaching. By now we were both feeling quite tired and cold so we ended up snuggling up together at 4000ft and just took in the beautiful scenery below us. Shortly afterwards we contacted Jeremy and told him we planned to land just after Newbury.
As we approached Newbury we encountered several large SAs and we were fast running out of fuel. A lot of the fields appeared to be very water logged. We decided to descend and tree hop for a bit so Thomas started a steep descent. This turned out to be a perfect decision as he suddenly spotted a patch of scrub land on the edge of a ploughed field and announced that this was where he was going to land. We skimmed over the trees surrounding the field and he gently dropped the balloon down perfectly on to the scrub. We did the tiniest of hops and then came to a stop, upright and perfectly nestled against the tree line within the scrub land. It was an expert landing on Thomas’s part (I don’t think many long jumps end with an upright landing) and quite simply the most perfect way to end the flight.
As soon as the balloon was settled I hopped out to take photographs and then we laughed when we looked at how much fuel we had remaining. We were both completely elated. To finish on less than 10% of fuel was amazing. It showed us that we’d had done our absolute best and that we couldn’t have tried any harder. While the balloon was deflating we took a moment to lie down together, have a cuddle and reflect on what we had just achieved together. We’d flown for 8.5hrs and covered 178.9 miles and I’d managed to do all that without going to the toilet, absolutely fantastic!
Jeremy had done an incredible job and was with us within minutes of us landing. He was the true star of the day! The only issue now was how to get our balloon back! The entrance to the field was bogged down in mud and had a small stream running across it. Luckily the landowners were beyond helpful and incredibly friendly and went out of their way to assist us, even bringing their own vehicle to help us! 3 trips across the field in a 4×4 farm buggy later, and as the last light faded we finally had the balloon packed away safely in her trailer and we were ready to head home. What a day…!