Matthew Billing and William Wood: From making cider to pushing the boundaries of ballooning

Matthew Billing (checked shirt) and William Wood (grey top) are the current Great British Long Jump

Matthew Billing (checked shirt) and William Wood (grey top) are the current Great British Long Jump champions (Photo by Jim Holden) - Credit: JIm Holden

When he’s not making cider, Matthew Billing soars across the Sussex skies with friend William Wood in their mission to push the boundaries of ballooning

There are few sights more lovely than a colourful hot air balloon gliding through the sky above the Sussex countryside, although the view from the balloon may perhaps rival it. Something that Matthew Billing and William Wood, two hot air balloonists from Eastbourne, can certainly attest.

Ballooning runs in the blood for both Matthew and William - William's father Chris flew commercially for a number of years and was an internationally competing gas balloon pilot too. Matthew is a third-generation hot air balloon pilot, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father.

"Pretty much every trip we went on when I was growing up was built around ballooning, from trips to Norfolk to attending the largest balloon meet in Europe in the Alsace region of France. Ballooning is firmly in my blood, and I couldn't ask for a better sport to be born into," Matthew says.

Matthew and William are currently at the top of their game. Last year the duo came top in The Great British Long Jump - a competition that sees pilots from around the United Kingdom conquer the elements to fly the furthest distance in a single flight.

Our county has somewhat of a pedigree in the competition, with Sussex residents Deborah Day and Mike Scholes also former winners. "Sussex has a surprising amount of balloonists, given its proximity to the sea," Matthew says. "We all chip in and help each other out as much as possible, and the camaraderie in ballooning is a big thing I love about the sport. There is a club called the Sussex and Surrey Balloon Group which meets every month near Horsham."

On their winning flight William and Matthew travelled to Chideock in Dorset with retrieve driver Peter Ollivere, another Eastbourne local, to start their journey to Norfolk. They launched at 8am carrying ten tanks of propane, a total of 540 litres, and soon were flying at 2,500 feet with a speed of 30 miles an hour.

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During the flight, they passed several landmarks in the UK, including Salisbury Plain, Longleat House, the Devizes Locks, Millbrook Proving Ground and the city of Oxford. Then, after passing through Norwich airspace, the balloon descended to around 500ft to search out a suitable landing field. After a bumpy landing, the GPS showed a distance of 233 miles - the furthest either of them had ever flown and a distance that beat the second place team by 50 miles.

"Believe it or not, this was my first ever Long Jump flight," explains Matthew. "It came from a conversation that Will and I had when we were coming back from his advanced flight test. I said I'd love to do it one day, and two weeks later we were flying for eight hours, covering 233 miles! Will had done quite a lot of planning for his previous attempts, so it was just a case of identifying the best route to take and hoping that the weather looked favourably on it."

Matthew's love of ballooning also extends to his day job - in 2017 he set up Ascension Cider and used a hot air balloon as his logo. Matthew has been brewing cider for more than 10 years, since borrowing a book on home brewing from the local library and making batches in his mother's shed. "I worked at the National Collection of Cider and Perry for a short while and built on my knowledge making cider at home. From there I worked at a couple of breweries, and then moved on to starting my own cider company. The apple balloon was an obvious design to go with. I've seen so many brands using the hot air balloon, but very few of them live it like we do," he says.

The company is now based in an old apple store on an orchard in Polegate where more than 20 varieties of apples are grown. Matthew also uses apples that supermarkets have deemed "not pretty enough" for sale. He does not add any extra sugars or acids to his cider, instead preferring to work with "what nature gives us".

His big dream is to one day own his own Ascension Cider- branded balloon, which he plans to fly across Sussex, the UK and Europe and maybe win a few more prizes too.


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