Exploring the Ribble Valley via hot air balloon

Downham and Pendle from the air

Downham and Pendle from the air - Credit: Irene Amiet

We take to to the skies in a hot air balloon to get a new view of the Ribble Valley

Chatburn by air

Chatburn by air - Credit: Irene Amiet

There is something hypnotic about watching a hot air balloon gently glide across a summer sky, its graceful progress punctuated by occasional flashes of flame.

Look closely at a balloon above the Ribble Valley and you may spot the image of a Pendle witch and, in the basket below, Graeme Church, with a hand on the hot air release, judging the wind and adjusting the height.

Graeme, who is originally from Southport, is one of only about 30 licensed balloon pilots in the North West. But the spell of wet weather in late spring meant he was unable to take to the skies nearly as often as he would have liked.

The unpredictability of an English summer is what led him to open a second business in New Zealand, where he now spends the northern hemisphere's winter months while his fleet of three balloons hibernates in a garage near Ulverston. Graeme averages 150 flying hours a year - two thirds of them in the skies above New Zealand. Graeme started his pilot's career in light aircraft but after he was gifted a hot air balloon flight at Christmas in 1989, he was hooked and started taking lessons to acquire a licence.

Pendle Hill from the air

Pendle Hill from the air - Credit: Irene Amiet

It took him about a year to qualify and another two to become an instructor. His background in flying helped as he had knowledge of weather and air law, but piloting a balloon is entirely different.

'You point a plane in the direction you need it to go. To fly balloons, you need to make use of the wind.' It can be compared to sailing, albeit a few thousand feet in the air.

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The rule is to not fly in winds stronger than eight knots so his passengers will never feel anything but a suspended floating, which also ensures a soft landing.

Ballooning is one of the safest methods of air transportation. 'Accidents are generally associated with weather, which makes it the pilot's fault,' says Graeme, who once flew across the Alps in winter as part of an Austrian tourism board publicity stunt. 'A hot air balloon is a very forgiving aircraft as it's quite slow. You can bump into other balloons and just bounce off.'

Graeme Church in the Pendle Witch

Graeme Church in the Pendle Witch - Credit: Irene Amiet

With him on flights from the Ribble Valley are up to eight lucky passengers, but they aren't just there to enjoy the spectacular views - they have to help get the balloon ready to fly. It takes three people to spread out the balloon's fabric and to help inflate the 220,000 cubic feet of fabric with help of a fan. Although the balloon gets inspected annually to regain its service certificate, Graeme checks the fabric before every flight.

Once fully pressurised, a petrol burner fan heats up the air to expand it, which will lighten the balloon so it can slowly be set upright. Ribble Valley take-offs usually take place from a sheep farm in West Bradford.

Once the balloon is ready, the passengers climb into the basket, more hot air is fired into the balloon and the speed of ascent is surprising. The world zooms out below giving a sensation similar to a lift taking you into the skies at 1000 feet a minute to an altitude of 5000 feet. High up, Graeme looks for suitable wind while the passengers enjoy the view. Should Graeme wish to descend, he opens a valve in the balloon's top for air to escape. Because of the relative quietness of a hot air balloon - the only sounds are the bursts of hot air triggered to gain height - animals aren't afraid. Sightings of foxes, deer and hares are common. 'Last month we flew above an osprey nest in the Lakes,' Graeme says. 'One of them even had a fish in its talons. The birds carried on with their business of feeding the young as we floated above.'

For landing, Graeme looks for fields away from obstructions such as power lines. 'The code of conduct for landing is simple,' he adds. 'Don't land in crops, high grass or where animals graze.'

Inside the Pendle Witch as the balloon is inflated

Inside the Pendle Witch as the balloon is inflated - Credit: Irene Amiet

Apart from the Pendle Witch, Graeme has another balloon mostly used for commercial purposes and a smaller balloon that only takes two passengers. He is used to many a delighted 'Yes!' after another successful marriage proposal in the skies.

For more information, or to book a flight, call 01254 247277 or go online to www.pendle-balloon-flights.com

Chatburn and the river Ribble

Chatburn and the river Ribble - Credit: Irene Amiet