Probably my most unusual flight to date, this one began when I was contacted on Twitter by a media production company Sitcom Soldiers who asked for my help in launching a high altitude balloon for Wreck My Dress. They wanted to fly a wedding dress into the stratosphere, and I agreed to do it for them provided the dress was a small model, and not a full sized one (which would act as an unpredictable parachute – the payload could have landed anywhere!). After a few emails back and forth, they applied for launch permission from the Lake District and built a payload structure with 3 GoPro cameras on board. A date was set but the predictions didn’t allow for a safe flight, so we delayed till the following weekend. Even then, predictions weren’t ideal but an alternate launch site was found and the CAA kindly switched the permission to there for us. The end result is just great as you can see below:
Julie and I travelled up the day before, staying at a B&B in the village local to the launch site. After breakfast we set out to find … snow and sideways winds. Not ideal launch conditions! After meeting up with the film crew (a total of 18 people including cameramen, make-up etc.!), I was mostly heard to mutter “too cold”, “too windy”, and “can’t launch in this!”.
However, with all that lot having turned up, I didn’t want to disappoint, and a failed launch is only likely to waste a balloon and gas so why not just have a go? I then thought about how to give us the best chance of a successful launch, and decided to fly just the one payload (originally I was going to add a separate tracker and perhaps a separate camera/tracker payload). By putting 2 trackers into the camera rig I could have a backup to the main tracker without having a separate payload. Also, using shorter lines than normal would further reduce the chance of launching sideways into a tree. Finally, we found a partly sheltered launch spot where the wind would take the flight over a dip in the ground, giving it more clearance as the payload line swings down.
So, the aim of the day was to record enough footage for a promo video. The idea for the shoot was that a woman decides to “wreck her (wedding) dress” by sending it up into the stratosphere and then searching for it after it lands. My part of course was the launch and recovery, and as I said that was of a miniature dress specially made for the day. Here’s the make-up team working on the actress in a box van:
Here she’s being videoed preparing her dress (a real one) for flight:
While all this was going on I got the trackers and chase car set up and then payload line connected up, all in the relative comfort of the make-up van. It was then time to venture outside and fill the balloon. We’d positioned the filling area downwind of the van so it offered some protection, but even so I was nearly pulled over by the balloon a couple of times!
And here’s the very nicely made miniature dress, hanging from the camera rig:
For the launch itself, we walked the balloon down to a partly sheltered area where the balloon had plenty of space to rise up over any trees. It was so windy I had a “minder” walking right behind me, making sure the wind didn’t pull me over as I held the balloon!
As you can see, it was pretty windy but eventually the wind calmed enough for a safe launch.
So with that done, we packed up the cylinders and launch kit and headed off cross-country to where the prediction said the flight would land, in the Yorkshire Dales. It was an “interesting” drive and I was glad of the fairly knobbly tyres on the 4×4!
I’d deliberately over-filled the balloon to get it to rise quickly and to burst early, in order to avoid it landing near some MOD establishments to the south-east. As we chased the balloon burst even earlier than planned, so we had to change our route. We then got to a closed road with no diversion signs, and found that the tiny roads we needed were unknown to the car sat nav! 3G and indeed any phone contact came and went all the time, so at one point we resorted to a proper paper map to plot our route! This then took us between some large water reservoirs, and past a small forest, at which point my heart sank as I realised that we were unlikely to recover the flight if it landed in either of those! In the event it flew over Hury Reservoir, avoided the trees and landed on a hillside within 150 metres of a road. Result! We were quite close at the time and it pretty much flew over our heads (but invisibly due to the low cloud cover). We parked up as my direction-finding app said the payload was directly to our right. Some of the locals seemed quite interested in what was going on:
Wellies donned, we set off up the steep, muddy hill, me carrying a yagi and receiver for direction-finding, plus a GPS app on my phone loaded with the landing position. It was a hard slog, with not much visibility, but we found the payload safe on the snow:
Now, on a regular flight that would be it – pack up and go home to view the photos! This though, as you’ve probably already gathered, was no ordinary flight, and the film crew had more to do to finish off the storyline. On route to the landing spot they’d spied a nice location with a stream and waterfall, and decided to video the recovery scenes there. So we drove a few miles back to there, parked up and warmed ourselves with tea/coffee.
Then another delay for make-up (if you think HAB time is slow, you should try waiting for make-up….) before a final video shoot …