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Article Published in The Meath Chronice Newspaper
Saturday 14th. August 2004

'They Look Like Playthings On A Toy Farm From A Height of 400ft'

Dunshaughlin Hot Air Balloon Team took Meath Chronicle Journalist John Donohoe on a balloon flight in the run-up to the 2004 Irish Hot Air Balloon Championships based in Kells, County Meath. Johns article was duly published in the Chronicle.

It got excellent reviews and as such we are re-printing it here in full with kind permission of The Editor, Meath Chronicle Newspaper. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we have making it.

If there's such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as a bird. Not a human 'bird', before readers start raising eyebrows. But any type of a bird that can fly. Because then, I could have a bird's eye view of everything, similar to that experienced from the basket of the Puffin balloon last week.

In the run-up to the Irish National Ballooning Championships being held in Meath at the end of September, your dedicated reporter availed of an opportunity to see for himself what it was all about.
The launch site was in one of Pat Smith's fields in Robinstown. Pat., well known for his involvement in such things at the Dunderry Fair, has been up in the balloon himself, earlier this year.
"The most amazing thing about it was that I could see both cement factories, Lagan in Kinnegad and Platin in Drogheda, from the air," he says.
There's quite a gathering in his field for the launch of Aidan Murphy's balloon. Piloting along with Aidan, who's from Dunshaughlin, is Michael Mills from Ardbraccan. And a good gang is needed, because you just wouldn't set off in a balloon on your own. A corner of the field behind a hedge is selected, as it is sheltered.

Earlier, Aidan had alerted air traffic control in Dublin Airport that there would be a balloon going up in the area. "It's really just a courtesy call, as we're outside controlled airspace, but it's in case there are any diversions this way," he explains.
Aidan and Michael have also got information from the Met Office regarding the weather prospects for the evening. And the race is now on to get airborne before we lose daylight.

There's a careful procedure ensuring that all equipment connecting the basket to the balloon 'envelope' is securely in place, while the envelope itself is being rolled out on the ground in preparation for the 'cold inflation', the blowing of cold air into the balloon envelope with a large fan. There was also testing of the Propane gas burners to ensure they were working.
On hand to help out are the retrieve navigators (more about them later) of Marie Mills and Alison Ryan, as well as David Morgan and Simon Conlon, Ray and Margaret Bergin, and children Ciara Coffey, Niamh Taaffe and Mark Ryan, who were enjoying the fun.

By this stage, the gathering in Pat Smith's field included a neighbouring farmer, Christy Sheridan, and his son, as well as a Dublin family who came down to see the launch.
There wasn't a sign of a breeze in the air. Not a leaf on a tree stirred. And with no steering on a balloon, you don't know what way the wind will bring you. "It'll go that way," Christy Sheridan predicted, sticking his finger in his mouth and putting it in the air to determine the wind direction, pointing towards Trim.
He was right. As soon as the burner inflated the envelope and the vessel airborne, it took off towards Trim.

The ascent was hardly noticeable - there was no sensation of rising off the ground. It just seemed like the ground was falling away from you - everything was getting smaller. Soon, the cattle in the fields were mere playthings on a toy farm. Robinstown, Aidan explains, is an ideal take-off spot because there's open country for miles around it. Lift-off was around 8.20 on Wednesday evening.

The pre-flight procedure is rigorous and involved. It includes rolling the balloon out on the ground in preparation for cold inflation, and testing the Propane gas burners.

(Photo: © Barry Colgan July 2004)

It's amazing how different the countryside looks from 400 feet up - you can see how Robinstown village is spreading rapidly, and look, there's Paul Bartley's Goodison Kitchens van outside his house, way beneath us. The fields are green and gold, the green ones look as manicured as a golf course from this height, while you can see the patterns of the wheels in the corn fields. Large round bales of hay in fields resembled spools, while in one field, a trailer load of hay was being built.

And as you look across the countryside, it really does look magnificent, with green hedges dividing up fields and farms, and busy houses and farmyards interspersed amongst them. There are views from the Hill of Tara to Slieve Bloom, and the Cooley Mountains to the Dublin Mountains. All the time, you're just floating tranquilly, with no wind or noise, apart from the release of the gas into the balloon every now and then to keep it afloat. We have three cylinders of gas on board with us. The burner uses 30 gallons an hour.

As we travel, Michael is watching for anything which could cause problems - electricity wires and masts, while the pilots are always wary of flying too low near horses and watch out for them. Soon, we were reaching the outskirts of Trim, coming in across Kilcooley, Kiltoome and Newtown, and crossing the river Boyne, more a stream than a river from where we were.

Crossing the town also gave us a bird's eye view of how Trim has grown, with its new housing developments. In one garden, a children's party was in full swing on a bouncing castle. Garda Ray Denniston had us 'under ob' as we crossed his place, and Tommy Bannon, if you're wondering who was shouting at you from the Puffin, now you know! Approaching the town, we were at 320 feet, but rose the height as we crossed the residential areas.

All the time, we were in radio contact with our retrieve team of Alison and Marie, while Simon and David were also following the flight. Trim Castle and St Patrick's Church looked splendid, and the old alma mater, St Michael's CBS, now looks totally different as Boyne Community School, but with the old red brick classrooms looking completely out of place amidst the new structure. Some of the newer estates on the Dublin side of town were completely void of activity. Nobody was to be seen around them, and on the fine evening all that could be seen was cars, again resembling Dinky or Matchbox versions, parked outside the matchbox houses.

We continued across the Summerhill Road, towards Trim Celtic football club grounds, which surprisingly hasn't any ragworth on it, even though all the surrounding land is smothered in the weed.

Another factor Michael was watching out for on this flight was the rising mists. He possesses the first ever balloonist's licence issued by the Irish Aviation Authority, licences which the Authority only agreed to issue after a long campaign by Michael and fellow balloonists. Previously, they had to be tested for a conventional pilot licence and then fly on an 'exemption', which was a very limiting arrangement. He has been ballooning for 15 years and a pilot for eleven. Aidan's is a British licence.

A field a distance away is pinpointed for landing, and, as we get close to it, descent begins. It's an empty pasture, and there are some overhead wires, so a careful approach is needed. Michael releases the gas levels necessary for the landing, as we hold on and bend our knees in preparation for the basket's bump on the ground. After crossing a hedge into the chosen field, we bump along the ground a little until coming to a standstill.

Aidan had already alerted the retrieve crew that we were planning to land, and was now radioing them to tell them we were on terra firma again. They now had to try and locate us with the jeep and balloon carrier for the retrieve, and eventually found us down a long narrow lane with a dead end. Michael remained in the basket while Aidan and I pulled him towards the gateway - the balloon still inflated. At this end, too, the colourful balloon had caught the attention of the locals, and they arrived down to see what was happening. We were at the end of a lane, having crossed Brownstown and Knightsbrook, in a place called Moynasboy.

"There's normally 150 cattle here, you're lucky tonight," Bridget Doherty, one of the locals, informed us. There was evidence of them all right, on the ground. One little lad got a chance to get into the balloon and have his photo taken before it was taken down. The retrieve team had arrived, reporting that the landowner didn't live at the farm, so they hadn't been able to make contact with him.

The balloonists always try to make contact with the landowner when they land as a courtesy. "Without a retrieve team and the co-operation of the landowners, you wouldn't be going flying," Aidan explains. "And the retrieve teams know what they're about, and generally get a chance to fly themselves."

Deflating of the envelope and dismantling of the equipment was next on the cards after the flight of 40 minutes and 37 seconds. We had travelled 4.9 nautical miles, at an average speed of 7.3 kts. Our maximum speed was 10.2 kts.
Having departed Kiely's farm and secured all the gates behind, it was back to Robinstown for a flight review, and, of course, refreshments.

36th Irish Hot Air Ballooning Championship take place at Athlone, Co.Westmeath
25th - 29th September 2006. See www.irishballooning.com or www.meath.ie

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