The Great British Long Jump 2007
Pilot Mark Dunstan-Sewell Crew Frank Watkins
Co-pilot Alastair Spurr Crew Steve Roberts
Balloon G-TORK, a Cameron Z105
Date of flight 21st October 2007
Propane at start 500 litres
Propane at end 20 litres
Start Seiont Nurseries, Pontrug, near Caernarfon, North Wales
Finish Ettrickbridge, near Selkirk, Scottish Borders
Start time 10.00 local
Finish time 17.17 local
Therefore flight time 7:17
Straight line distance claimed 171.9 Statute miles
Average speed 23.6 mph
Max height 5400 ft
Wind direction mostly heading NNE and veering
Witnesses to launch crew plus campers
Witnesses to landing sheep plus crew
Length of landing drag nil
Long Jump Flight Report 2007
How two men from England flew over the Irish Sea from Wales to Scotland.
This flight involved a lot of planning and preparation and was subject to the usual family and work commitments. Luckily, not much appeared to be happening with the weather while we couldn’t fly. We put together a Rotork Works Team, which simplified things considerably and made the flight in our shiny new balloon.
We settled on a weekend flight on the 21st October, allowing us to travel north on a Saturday, do the flight on Sunday and to drive back through Sunday night, to drowsily turn up at work on the Monday morning.
But back to the planning. I have a theory that the Irish Sea is a good venue to cross on this competition, given that it is surrounded by land in nearly every direction. With this in mind I thought I would find out early about the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000, which affects flights involving Ireland and the Isle of Man. I diligently phoned the Avon and Somerset Constabulary Headquarters and gave up when they didn’t even answer their phone. Similarly, I wanted to find out the possibility of passing though Liverpool & Manchester Airspace and was given some email addresses by a very helpful controller. My emails to a body called AUSOPS were not replied to, so I gave up there too.
So, I spent my time gathering tanks, getting a nitrogen cylinder, transponder, life-jackets, crash helmets, thermos, warm clothes and charging all the batteries.
I had looked at the weather for the 21st at least since the Monday before and it seemed to consistently stay within a couple of mph. This gave me a Plan A of a launch from Caernarfon or Plan B, a launch from somewhere near Stranraer. For flexibility, we would keep an eye on the weather even on the journey up to decide which was best.
We packed all the kit, just, into and onto my van and left Bristol on Saturday morning. We stopped off for tea and sandwiches at Alastair’s parents’ house in Cheshire, where we could also check the weather. We decided on Caernarfon, where I had also phoned and arranged a launch site. I had Long-Jumped in 2000 to King’s Lynn from there.
At Caernarfon we filled up all the 10 tanks at a petrol station, filled the van with petrol and then drove the wallowing ‘bomb’ to our launch site – just to check it out. We then drove around looking for a B & B with food and a television to watch the Rugby World Final. We found one just in time to enjoy the last of the food before settling down to watch the rugby.
At half-time I went off and filed a flight plan. It was a bit disconcerting that the chap on the other end of the phone kept going quiet. Looking back on it, he was probably paying more attention to the rugby than to my details.
After a good night’s sleep I woke early to hear something flapping in the wind – a good sign – and the flags were fluttering. I had half of my breakfast and checked the NOTAMS. It was Sunday and there were none!
We headed off to the launch site, a camp-site, where they had mowed the grass in our honour, and we set about assembling the balloon. I had to decide where to put the nine tanks that would go with us, and which ones would need nitrogen. The tenth tank was for inflation. We got everything strapped together and then found it really difficult to tip the basket over, as we had the best part of half a ton of fuel and tanks.
I now phoned Manchester to activate the flight plan and we did a final weather check on the lap-top. The flight plan people were very casual about my call, as if they had none of my details in front of them. We then got a call from Dewi, the local coroner, a friend of Alastair, who wished us well and hoped he wouldn’t be seeing us professionally later on! After a quick trip to the camp-site facilities we were able to make a very civilised inflation and launched at 10.00 – only an hour later than planned.
We headed straight up to find the height with best speed and direction and settled down near 3000 feet. We had plenty of time over Anglesey to abort the flight if we needed to. I called up RAF Valley, as I was in their AIAA – but no reply (they shut at weekends). So I called up Liverpool, who were co-operative, although not particularly expecting us.
We were now truly committed to the flight as we left land at 10.30. We were up in the sunshine, where we remained for the rest of the flight. It was warm and pleasant with no need of the big coats that we had brought. There was just a thin layer of cumulus just below our height. It felt quite comfortable to be heading for at least a hundred miles of sea with all that fuel and a steady wind. The first tank ran out ten minutes later.
It was quite hard to keep concentration on maintaining a steady height and direction. Every time I dropped a couple of hundred feet we would lose a few knots. At this stage the balloon was quite heavy and needed constant attention. We were using one of the unpressurised master tanks on a double-burner and planned to run the tank down to 5%, to leave enough fuel for the pilot-light. I left about 7% before changing to the next tank. Part of the fuel plan was also to use up the outer tanks first, so that there was less risk of them coming adrift.
Later we noticed the basket leaning quite a bit as we used up the fuel, so we changed the order of usage to make up for this.
At 12.20 we used the transponder for Liverpool for the first time, before they transferred us to London Information at 12.28. At 12.40 we saw the nearest gas platform on the Morecambe field. We could also see a coastline in the distance. I optimistically thought this was Scotland, but it turned out to be the Isle of Man.
We had agreed to call up the retrieve on the hour, every hour, but got no replies until much later. At 13.30 we changed over to our last external tank and could now estimate that we’d have enough fuel until about 6pm, which fitted well with a landing in good light. At just after 2pm I spotted land near Whitehaven, where there is a wind-farm. I now knew we were fairly safe. The clouds changed a bit and we approached one, where our shadow on the cloud had a distinct halo around the basket.
We had a bit of the food mountain that I had hastily packed and I counted the 30 seconds that it took for my apple-core to splash into the sea. At some time here I had to recover a descent by a fairly long burn. With the high pressure in the fuel tanks, this extended burn caused the flame to lift off the burner up into the envelope, taking both pilot-lights with it. It went quite quiet. I instinctively went for the sparker in my pocket and then thought about it. I just pressed the piezos and the reassuring noise of the pilot-lights came back again.
We were now over the Solway Firth, which felt more frightening than the open sea, as there were sandbanks everywhere. Some of these had breaking waves over them and were definitely not a good spot to land. We discussed rescue by hovercraft, just to lift our spirits.
We called up the retrieve again at 3, without reply, but managed to get a text to them. At 3.16 we were transferred to Scottish Information, where we stayed for the rest of the flight. At 3.30 we crossed the coast into Scotland and were safe (fairly) at last. At 3.50 we passed about 5 miles south of Lockerbie. This area is just full of huge country houses and large, flat fields.
I checked the master-tanks here to find them both reading zero, but both pilot-lights still going. I kept my sparker handy. Next time, I think we’ll leave a bit more gas for the pilot-lights! We climbed gently and increased our speed to 26 knots, but veered about 20 degrees. We managed to contact the retrieve by radio now, but we still couldn’t see each other.
At 4.07 we had 30% of a tank left on one side and changed onto our last full tank on the other side. Now we were flying over a huge forest and I wanted to get away from it, so we climbed up to 5400 feet and found 31 knots, veering another 10 degrees.
Then, with the other tank down to 30% and expecting a fast landing, I decided to come down to low-level to look for a landing spot. The speed dropped away to 10 knots and then 4 knots. Now we were in farmland with sheep all around and I only have one whisper burner, so we landed when this tank was down to 10%. I found a field next to a road, where we made a gentle stand-up landing at 5.17 in amongst the pheasants. We used the whisper burner to lighten the balloon, while Alastair pulled it back into an empty sheep field, where we were able to put it away. I was a little disappointed to find that this tank ran out at 5%. I’m glad I wasn’t relying on it.
This was a very enjoyable flight, if not the fastest, and many thanks go to our crew, who covered over 900 miles on the retrieve. Thanks also to those who lent us their fuel tanks and to Jeremy Hinton who persevered with downloading my GPS. I think that without the reassuring GPS, I wouldn’t embark on such a flight. Next time, we’ll spend more time and pack less. Despite the weight penalty, I’ll still have a co-pilot too; these flights just need to be shared.