Home built hot air balloon
Below is a transcript of an article in the August 2019 edition of Aerostat, the magazine of the BBAC documenting the construction of G-KENL "Meme' at Sackville Lodge in Bedfordshire.
After attending the first Homebuild (Annex) meet in October at Sackville, Bedfordshire, and having the privilege of flying Tim Wilkinson’s BM65, my mind had been made up, I’d decided that I was going to build a hot air balloon. With no time to lose and a burning desire I boldly announced to all my mates of my imminent but slightly ambitious intentions, and after they’d picked themselves up off the floor with a severe case of broken ribs from the copious amounts of laughter, a couple of quite major problems urgently needed to be addressed, the ever so little fact that I had not even touched any type of sewing machine before in my entire life, and also I had the artistic flair of a Labrador dog with only one leg, this meant that the task in hand was certainly going to be a very challenging one.
After contacting the CAA and registering the balloon G-KENL, naming it ‘Meme’ (named ‘Meme’ because its all about Me) and deciding on a 65,000 cuft, all that was left was the design and the build (I say so casually)
I’ve always thought that the shape of a hot air balloon lends itself to a face, a big smiley face, my favourite colour is blue, so, with this in mind, the initial design was done, a blue balloon with a smiley face… wow, that was easy (or so I thought).
Before I could even dream of joining any of the material together, I had to learn how to use a twin needle sewing machine, Barry ‘the patience of a Saint’ Newman and Tim Wilkinson took to the task with open arms, not only with the sewing, but with the teaching of the skills required for the management of all the material (and there was a lot of it) the changing of the bobbins, the cutting out of the material and the working to a pattern, sewing machine maintenance, all these skills had to be mastered by myself before the initial stitch was done, but hey, believe me, if I can do it, then anybody can. Thank you Tim and Barry for all your help, support and patience.
Credit must go to Brian Mead for the final design, although I knew what I wanted, it was Brian who made it possible by designing the many patterns (A BM65 design with BM designed artwork). It really was a huge learning curve applying the artwork, what appears straight on an inflated three-dimensional huge bulbous hot air balloon is not necessarily straight when applying it to a flat, two-dimensional piece of flimsy fabric, and when you have to allow for seams it can certainly contribute to a few grey hairs! One of the main problems with artwork is the sheer size of it, each eye is nearly 15 foot tall, and sewing them on, not getting pleats and making sure everything lined up definitely caused more than one sleepless night. The decision to sew the artwork on top rather than cutting the artwork in welcomed much discussion and all the pros and cons were debated, but with the end result I’m pleased with my decision.
One of the main qualities of everyone concerned at Sackville is that nothing seems impossible, no idea is ever frowned upon and anything can be discussed, confidence is installed very early on and you are very patiently taught every process of the build, no matter how many mistakes you make (I made a lot), how many seams you sew wrong (I sewed a lot wrong), in fact any mistake at all, it really doesn’t matter, you just have to redo it until its right. (I say it doesn’t matter, but sewing the very last seam up with a twist in the material, and having to spend a total of four soul destroying hours with two of us unpicking it did cause a few choice words!) The beauty of sewing is that it can be unpicked and you can just start again, unlike welding, when that’s done its done! You’re also taught how to meticulously inspect every inch of the stitch, both top and bottom and front to back after every seam is completed.
The last step of the build was to make the bag for my lovely new envelope, and I hasten to add, that this can be a very very dangerous task, as it involves using a soldering iron to delicately burn holes into webbing so that brass eyelets can be inserted, and this said scalding hot soldering iron bloody well hurts when it is inserted into your finger, not once but on several occasions, Ouch! Who said ballooning wasn’t dangerous?!
Along the way quite a few people popped into the workshop to offer encouragement and support, to name but a few, Stuart Skinner with his now famous supply of Mrs Skinners Flapjack, and also Lenny Vaughan, who had only recently finished his own BM65. Lenny’s timing on one particular day was perfect, I’d spent several frustrating, lonesome, freezing cold hours (the fact that the workshop was freezing was totally my own fault as I’d accidently kicked the propane heater over on day one, resulting in the insides of the heater welding itself together and rendering itself useless, and being a full time firefighter for over 29 years who is supposedly aware of the dangers of fire, had in the process nearly burnt down the entire workshop starting with my own trousers!) On this particular afternoon I was trying to work out why the thread kept pulling out of the needle, when Lenny popped his head around the corner and calmly said “thread the needle from the other side” Boom! What seems so simple now (and with the beauty of hindsight) at the time seemed to be on the same technical skill level as rewiring the space shuttle whilst sat in the middle of an industrial freezer with one eye shut. Problem solved, the sewing continued.
Chris Dunkley and John Yarrow (probably the best sewer in the world!) must also be given credit by offering some valuable advice, Mark Stelling for his support, Mark Stellings Mum Patricia for some absolutely legendary mince pies and also Jonathan Dyer and Rebecca Cains for their valued encouragement.
I decided to do the complete build in the workshop at Sackville, Tim and his wife Angie made up the spare room and over the next few months, with countless visits, played host and cooked the most fabulous meals and really made me feel at home, something for which I am truly grateful for. One observation that has to be reported though is that when Tim suggests a full days work is in order, he means start at 6am (up at 5.30) and finish at 10pm, that apparently is a normal full days work, I’m guessing that this comes from Tims days as a farmer (incidentally, I absolutely never want to be a farmer!) but lots was achieved and the build progressed.
From the initial decision in October, the first inflation was in April. From this it was discovered that a few alterations were needed and over the following month each one was addressed.
After an airworthiness inspection the first flight of G-KENL was made on the 23rd of May 2019, Myself and Barry flew for a total of 60 minutes, with Tim and Martin Griffiths in hot pursuit. It was possibly one of the most exhilarating flights I had ever made, I had finally done it!
My advice to anyone considering building a hot air balloon is to just do it, the hardest decision is when to start, the second hardest is the design, the rest just follows.
Myself, and I’m sure everyone at Team Sackville would only be too happy to advise and chat to anyone wishing to accept the challenge. You will have a love/hate relationship with the build, sometimes you can feel euphoric with the days success and other days feel totally and utterly broken and wondering what the hell have you started (although having parted with my hard earned dollar which following a divorce was in short supply, the decision to carry on was never in doubt)
The ultimate reward really is worth it, I’m not sure that it puts me on a level pegging with the Montgolfier Brothers, but it does make me feel pretty damn proud of the achievement, and now that all my mates ribs have had time to heal, I can proudly say ”I told yer so!”
And finally . . . . Watch this space, I’ve just built a big shed in the garden to house a twin needle sewing machine, and armed with the knowledge of building the first, I’ve still got plenty ideas . . . . .