A large part of why the southwest city of Bristol has become synonymous with hot air balloon rides can be attributed to the Bristol Belle G-AVTL. Earning its fame as Britain’s first modern flight of a hot air balloon, the Bristol Belle’s feat was also the first of its kind for the whole of Western Europe.
The hot air balloon was the brainchild of members of the United Kingdom’s Bristol Gliding Club, first founded in 1938 by previous members of the Cambridge University Gliding Club. On hearing of the American inventor and “Father of the Modern-Day Hot-Air Balloon” Ed Yost’s successes, the aeronautical enthusiasts at the club decided they would tackle the task of creating a hot air balloon of their own.
Leading the project was Chairman Bill Malpas, along with co-creators Mark Westwood, Don Cameron, and Giles Bulmer of Britain’s renowned family-run cider business. Three other club members were also part of the scheme: balloon builder Malcolm Brighton, London photographer for the press Tom Sage, and the Czechoslovakian citizen who is credited with introducing the Porsche brand to Britain, Charles Meisl.
In 1966, over the summer, the Bristol hot air balloon team attended an event known as Dunstable Air Day to witness the attempts of other groups interested in achieving a successful flight. The tests ended abruptly, however, when one lighter-than-air aircraft created by a teacher, John Turner of Smithills Technical School in Bolton and his pupils, ran into trouble. Planned as a tethered flight, the hot air balloon broke free and although the pilot evaded harm, the event committee banned any more balloon ascents for the day.
By 1967, the Bristol Belle was finished. An experienced balloonist of the Royal Air Force, Wing Commander Gerry Turnbull, instructed the Bristol team on how to fly their aircraft. The balloon was inflated using JETAIR blowers used for space heating, but three rips occurred in the envelope, causing failure initially. After returning to the drawing board, the team corrected this design flaw with help from Woking-based firm, GQ Parachutes.
Now that the Bristol Belle had been suitably redesigned to cope with the stresses of inflation it was time to select a location and date for the ascent. Sunday, July 9, 1967 saw the team assemble at the Royal Flying Corps station, RAF Weston-on-the-Green, to launch the Bristol Belle. Among other members of the media, the Daily Telegraph newspaper covered the event that made both British and European hot air ballooning history.
Since its inaugural ascent, the celebrated aircraft has played a part in some world-renowned flights like when pilots Lieutenant Howard Draper Lieutenant Terry Adams of 849 Squadron’s B Flight launched from the HMS Ark Royal, delivering mail to the island of Malta in 1970. In 2017, to celebrate 50 years since it first flew, after substantial patching of its envelope, the Bristol Belle hot air balloon was inflated in Bristol city centre on College Green.