Dreaming high with Cameron Balloons
Long Reads 23.12.2017
Words Jim Butler
Photographs Leo Cackett
Founded in Bristol in the 1970s, Cameron Balloons have earned their reputation as the best hot-air balloon company in the world. They may have come a long way from the early days of stitching canopies in their own flat, but the principle remains the same, as founder Don Cameron explains: ‘Heat air and it expands…’
‘It’s just defying gravity – the thing you’ve always dreamed of.’ Don Cameron MBE, the godfather of modern hot-air ballooning in the UK, has spent the past minute or so trying to adequately describe the allure of the aviation discipline that has shaped his life. To begin with he struggles, noting that it’s hard to put into the words the feeling it evokes. He suggests that it’s something you have to try before you can fully understand its appeal.
Earlier on, his daughter Hannah sat in the same chair in the offices of Cameron Balloons, the factory in Bristol that bears the family’s ballooning legacy. She too initially struggled when asked the same question. ‘It’s really hard to describe.’ And then a wry smile begins to draw upwards upon Cameron senior’s angular face. The words are coming. He explains that experiencing the thrill first-hand is the best way to comprehend balloon’s wondrous singularity, but there are some things he can state unequivocally. ‘It is a magic way of flying,’ he smiles, his soft, Scottish brogue accentuating his speech. ‘You rise above the earth. It’s different to aeroplanes. I mean all flying is magic, but it’s…’ He hesitates once more. ‘It is very difficult to put into words. You’re floating through the air. Imagine being in an aircraft where you can lean over the edge and talk to people on the ground.’
‘It’s just defying gravity – the thing you’ve always dreamed of’
It’s then that he brings up gravity; the phenomenon that perplexed, fascinated and inspired some of the finest minds of all generations – Newton, Einstein et al. As explanations go, it’s marvellous, prompting thoughts both visceral and intellectual. Who wouldn’t want to find out more?
Bedminster is a fairly unremarkable part of Bristol, situated to the south of the city. If one were feeling unkind you might describe it as a part of town that gentrification forgot. And yet here – situated somewhat incongruously opposite a drive-through McDonald’s – is the de facto home of modern hot-air ballooning. They are fairly modest about the fact, but Cameron Balloons is the largest manufacturer of hot-air balloons on the planet. ‘The most popular, we like to say,’ says Hannah Cameron. See? Humble and, unlike the product it creates, down-to-earth.
And it all stems from the ingenuity of Donald Cameron. Having studied aeronautical engineering in his native Glasgow, Cameron moved down to the South West of England in the early 1960s to join the illustrious Bristol Aeroplane Company, just before it was bought by Rolls-Royce. Having flown planes as a student in Glasgow, the intrepid Cameron wished to pursue his passion in Bristol and consequently joined a gliding club. The attendant social life was an added bonus.
‘They had a good bar in the club,’ he recalls, ‘so we would often get together in the evening. One evening we began chatting about this new style of hot-air balloon that had just been invented in America.’
Cameron and his inquisitive companions had heard about the pioneering work being undertaken by Ed Yost across the Atlantic. Yost was a test pilot for the US Military who was contracted to develop a hot-air balloon to assist the military in its espionage activities during the Cold War. Cameron’s interest was piqued, so he decided to write to Yost. ‘He waited weeks for a reply,’ explains his daughter Hannah. ‘Yost suggested he could make a similar balloon for my dad and his friends, but my dad balked at the costs involved. Being an aeronautical engineer he felt he should be able to do this. So with some gliding club friends and a few others they decided to make one.’
Eventually, in 1967, the Bristol Belle made its maiden voyage in Oxfordshire. Driven by enthusiasm as much as expertise, those early days were best characterised by an abundance of trial and error, according to Hannah. ‘They used to do nonsense things like take off in the middle of the day,’ she says. ‘Whereas we know now that the best times for ballooning are early morning and late afternoon/early evening. So there was a lot to learn.’
Learn they did, though. As they began to apply more science to the mix, great strides were made. In 1971, what was hitherto a hobby for Cameron became a professional, commercial concern with the formation of Cameron Balloons. Operating out of the basement flat of the family home in Cotham, the early years were very much a family affair. ‘There wasn’t really Health and Safety back then,’ Hannah laughs. ‘We had all sorts of people working in the basement flat. My mum sewed the balloons together and my dad did pretty much everything else. He did the mechanical engineering, parts for the burners and all the design work. He’s one of those folk who’s a very practical and sensible engineer, but he’s got that childlike enthusiasm. So that combination is tremendous for a ballooning factory.’
The nascent business soon outgrew their flat, and so they decamped to a church hall just down the road. The building was ideal – indeed many record-breaking balloons were constructed there – although the nearby residents might have thought otherwise. ‘One neighbour’s house was so close that if he opened his windows he could talk to people in the factory,’ recalls Hannah with a rueful grin. And so, in 1983, the business moved into its present premises, a former printing factory in Bedminster. Today, the ballooning scene is a global concern – 85 per cent of Cameron’s balloons are shipped overseas, a fact reflected by the company being awarded the Queen’s Award for Export in 1989.
While the company has grown, adapted and embraced the benefits of new technology, aeronautical engineering and scientific discoveries – particularly when it comes to the lightweight fabric used on the balloons and the burners – some things remain resolutely unchanged. ‘The principle remains the same,’ explains Cameron senior. ‘Heat air and it expands – and given volume becomes lighter. Since that first one we’ve seen a growth in the size of balloons. Lots of little details have been refined and improved. The burners are much better than the original ones. But the principle is still the same.’
The process is a pleasing mix of the modern and the traditional, then. Hannah will refer to aeronautical and mechanical engineers in one breath and then talk about sowers and cutters in another. Every piece of fabric is sewn to the next by a seamstress. The baskets are all handcrafted and the metalwork involved is all put together by hand. Unless it’s a bulk or repeat order, no two balloons are the same. There are countless combinations to be achieved within shape and size. Some natural-shaped balloons are more bulbous, while others are flatter.
When it comes to usage, Cameron develops three distinct types of balloons: those for passenger rides, those for sport and competition and, finally, the special-shaped balloons most often used for advertising and promotional work. The biggest balloon they have made was for 32 people, coming in at 750,000 cubic feet. ‘A balloon generally takes between 10 and 16 weeks to build,’ says Hannah. ‘We’ve got quicker in the way we manufacture things and in our methods, but they’re a lot more complicated than they were. They’re also much bigger. A big balloon 15 years ago carried six people: today a big balloon carries 16.’
Back in the 1960s, Don and his associates learned to fly by trial and error – and consulting an arcane set of guidelines that had been laid down in 1900. Pleasingly, today, there are licences for hot-air balloon pilots as laid down and codified by The British Balloon and Airship Club. Ask Hannah what you need to become a pilot and she replies immediately, ‘common sense’.
‘If you can drive a car you can fly a balloon,’ she adds. ‘There are exams to pass and you have to do a minimum of 16 hours flying time, although most tend to do between 20 and 40. If you’ve got aviation experience then it’s pretty easy. Most people don’t of course, so there’s a bunch of stuff that you have to learn. Air law for example, that’s all new to people. It’s no great shakes, but you’ve just got to learn it.’
So, how hard is it? ‘It’s a piece of cake,’ she shoots back. ‘I could show you in an afternoon. When you’re up there you have to pay attention. As I said, it’s a lot like driving. You have to control your fuel. You always land with a good reserve. There’s some navigation to do. There’s handing out the sweets… No, I’m joking. But you have to make it jolly. It is part of your responsibility as a pilot. You have to make sure everybody is enjoying it.’
Given its dominant role in the history and development of modern hot-air ballooning, Cameron Balloons has played an integral part in a number of record-breaking flights and journeys. Don himself was the first man to cross both the Sahara and the Alps by hot-air balloon. In 1978 he fell just short of making the first transatlantic crossing when he was forced down in the Bay of Biscay, just 110 miles short of France. He finally made the crossing in 1992, when he came second in the inaugural transatlantic balloon race. ‘All five balloons were built here,’ Hannah notes proudly. ‘It sounds easy, but of course they had to decide on different altitudes, and if you go at different altitudes that can affect direction and then once they’re spread out you’re dealing with different weather. It was very much a game of backgammon trying to get the balloons across.’
And as if to demonstrate how much the technology has developed in the past 50 years, she mentions that on her dad’s first aborted attempt at crossing the Atlantic, the navigation was done by the stars: ‘There was no GPS.’
Don, despite being a septuagenarian, still flies to this day (‘Oh yes, goodness. Why stop?’). He has, unsurprisingly, been laden with awards, the most prestigious of which saw him visit the White House in 1999 to be presented with the Harmon Trophy (which marks the world’s outstanding aviator) by Vice-President Al Gore. Previous recipients have included Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong.
The most recent display of the company’s abilities came last year when it made the Rozière balloon, RA-2900G, that saw Russian adventurer Fedor Konyukhov circumnavigate the Earth in the shortest-ever time of 11 days, 5 hours and 32 minutes. Incredibly, he landed just 194km from his take-off point in Australia. The previous record, held by Steve Fossett since 2002, was also achieved in a Cameron-built balloon – as was the first balloon that circumnavigated the world in 1999.
‘Fedor had never flown a balloon before,’ adds Hannah, remarkably. ‘Apparently he had a dream about it, or saw something when he was a child. He’s had this vision in his mind. And he just had to do it. It was one solo continuous flight. He slept in the tailor-made capsule we constructed for him.’
In most cases, if you can envisage it, Cameron can build it. The company has constructed balloons in the shape of Coca-Cola bottles and Converse sneakers for its corporate clients, as well as a Minion and, back in the day, the Caramel Bunny for Cadbury’s. ‘Something that we haven’t made – and something that I think would be really difficult – would be a goldfish bowl,’ Hannah suggests. Although she goes on to mention that if they used silver fabric you could get some good effects. ‘Hmm… it’s possible…’ After all, passion and enthusiasm can make any dream reality, as Cameron Balloons ably demonstrate.