A Virgin hot-air balloon was looming low over Cottenham, just North of Cambridge City on the evening of 22nd June. Drinkers enjoying the sun and the ale outside The Chequers pub were stunned to see the enormous inflatable bobbing low over houses opposite. The pilot seemed desperately trying to gain height and had the burner on full power.
The balloon eventually lifted up and floated a few metres above the sweetshop and Chinese takeaway opposite heading for the Community Centre and Co-op store on the dangerous dog leg in Cottenham’s long High Street. Fortunately, it was at an altitude of about 40 metres at this point, although it did not stay high for long.
With nowhere safe to land at this point in the village witnesses assumed that the pilot was desperately trying to navigate to a field or open country away from the houses.
“It literally skimmed a tree in my back garden! It was frighteningly low,” said Cottenham resident Sian Williams. “I could feel the heat from the flames in my bedroom. Is this allowed?” she asks.
“It was extremely low when it came over Rooks Street, another Cottenham resident and local businessman Chris Fryer said. “It cleared the houses but landed very shortly after. I’m no expert but it didn’t look deliberate.
The law is very strict on ballooning. Except with the written permission of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) an aircraft shall not be flown closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel vehicle or structure. “Virgin seems to have form in breaching the Air Navigation Order like this,” says Russ Swan who filmed a similar incident in 2010 that elicited an apology from Virgin on local BBC TV.
Experienced glider pilot David Allan told me that, “The only way they can get around this is in the case of an emergency landing (gliders and balloons have an exemption for field landings). If there was a problem the pilot should have set the ballon down before drifitng over a town – when there is nowhere to go.”
High Street balloon photo David Bradley. Balloon on Tree photo by Sian Williams