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Bristolians show true spirit at challenging balloon fiesta

16/08/2019 philip Features

Beset by horrendous weather the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta for 2019 battled on regardless. Despite the adverse conditions, the valiant organisers and stalwart attendees alike ensured the English city still enjoyed an unforgettable and important event on the Bristol calendar.

A historic park only 10 minutes from the heart of Bristol known as Ashton Court Estate was the chosen site for the grand occasion. Set in 850 acres of wooded grasslands, the venue makes an ideal site for an epic ascent. Prepared for around 100, 000 visitors each day, and with over 130 balloons launching, the four-day long fiesta is arguably one of Europe’s largest hot air balloon events, and much loved by Bristolians.

With everything but the weather planned to perfection, the free event was all set for a celebration of some magnificence. Entering its 41st year, the balloon fiesta teamed up with other British aviation greats marking important anniversaries in 2019. Airbus, celebrating 50 years of pioneering the airways, sponsored the opening day of the fiesta and Aerospace Bristol also backed the event, commemorating 50 years since the Concorde made its first ever flight. Balloonist and Concorde Pilot, Captain Tim Orchard attended the occasion with his own Hopper balloon, fully fitted with seats from the supersonic aircraft.

Thursday August 8

Due to weather warnings that might hinder the event balloon launches, an extra pair of mass ascents was scheduled for the first day of the fiesta. “Mass ascent” is the term describing a launch of multiple balloons at once. Onlookers who would originally have been required to wait until Friday, were up with the lark to see the very first balloons sail into the skies over Bristol.

On the ground, hot air balloons from far flung locations across the globe including Taiwan and Japan were preparing for launch. Pilots and ground crew busied themselves with last-minute safety checks and set about inflation.

Against a stunning sunrise the fiesta got off to an astonishing start with the first balloon rising from the Ashton Estate at 6.41 am soon followed by a further 57. Waving cartoon bears, winking sun-coloured emojis, eucalyptus chewing koalas and even a wellington boot could be counted among the myriad of multi-coloured balloons up in the air.

The sight that seemed to captivate the crowds the most though, was a design from the dark side by Cameron Balloons of Bristol, a company internationally renowned for building the world’s largest passenger balloon. Soaring high over Bristol this new balloon took the form of the infamous villain of the Star Wars saga, Darth Vader. While manufactured in the city, this was its maiden flight in Bristol, made possible by a successful crowd funding project online.

Social media was soon awash with balloon spotters posting pictures of sighting from all over Bristol at local landmarks like Troopers Hill and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. One rogue balloon was even captured drifting into Avon Gorge.

A “Nightglow” had been planned for the evening where balloon pilots would heat their basket burners and lighting up inflated balloons in time with music, ably supplied by BBC Radio Bristol. Due to the beginning of bad weather this was deemed unsafe but a “Naked Nightglow” was managed instead. Although the balloons could not be filled and lit, the pilots produced flames from their burners to a spectacular soundtrack, cheered on by the crowd. The musical performance was then followed by an outstanding firework display from the organisers to mark the end of the fiestas first day.

Friday August 10 and Saturday August 11

While rain showered the fiesta over the next two days, Bristol proved the weather couldn’t dampen its spirits. While Friday found festival goers facing the news that the mass ascents planned would be cancelled, they made the best of the day with funfair style entertainment and plenty to eat and drink from fiesta sponsors Eat Natural. Innovative rainwear was on sale on the day and proved very popular with those caught unprepared for the downpour.

While the weather did seem to clear, it was still not supplying the light winds favourable for ballooning and when the forecast worsened for Saturday, closure of the site was deemed necessary for safety reasons.

Sunday August 12

With the weather slightly improved, the fiesta reopened on Sunday with great support from all those attending. While a morning mass ascent was unfortunately out of the question due to high winds, the pilots did their best to entertain the crowds, one or two balloons even made it into the air to grand applause.

Despite the lack of aeronautic activity, the final day of the fiesta proved a great day out for the younger members of the community. Aardman Animations had also partnered up with the Bristol balloon fiesta celebrating the 30th anniversary of the much-loved characters Wallace and Gromit. On site they offered several exciting activities for children and adults alike including a DIY course in model making. A giant inflatable Spiderman slide, face painting and foam soft-play areas were also provided for more family fun.

Sadly, a threatening thunderstorm ruled out an evening ascent to finish off the fiesta but there can be no doubt that Bristol never gave up on its event and celebrated the momentous occasion in style against adversity.

Hot air balloons require specific weather conditions to fly safely. Morning and evening are the ideal times for flight as the winds are light and the air is more stable. Balloons travel with the breeze, so strong winds can make the craft very difficult to control and even harder for pilots to land safely. It’s imperative that safety precautions are always followed no matter how disappointing it can be when the weather gets in the way of a special occasion.

Due to the endless enthusiasm of the organisers and the continuing passion for ballooning shared by those that pilot them in the skies and behold them from the ground, one thing is certain, the Balloon Fiesta is set for success again to Bristol in 2020.

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