The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta is one of Europe’s premier ballooning events, attracting up to 500,000 visitors annually. Michael Buckle reports for AeroResource on what was a special year for the Balloon Fiesta.

Held in Bristol’s historical Ashton Court estate, the Balloon Fiesta is now in its 32nd year and has safely earned its reputation as a fantastic free family event. Established by the famous Don Cameron of Cameron Balloons in 1979 the first fiesta had an attendance of 27 balloons, a figure that has now firmly risen up to a remarkable 150.

With ballooning teams from around the world flocking to Bristol from as far a field as Dubai and the United States, everyone was keeping a close eye on the ever-changing weather forecasts, although looking very promising at the start, it slowly changed for the worst as the event drew closer.

The four day fiesta began on Thursday 12th, with a planned mass assent of multiple special shape balloons, including three first public appearances, one of those remaining a mystery until launch day. Unfortunately, high winds caused the launch to be cancelled due to the intensive flying limits special shape balloons are limited to, however the teams did manage to inflate and tether prior to the evenings proceedings.

This year’s event was a special one, not only was 2010 the celebratory year for 100 years of south west aviation, but more importantly the golden jubilee of modern ballooning, the anniversary was celebrated at the fiesta by a pioneer of ballooning, Don Cameron; Don tethered the Bristol Belle, which was the first hot air balloon to be constructed in Western Europe. G-AVTL was completed and first flown in 1967 from RAF Weston-on-Green and it was a wonderful experience for so many to see.

Thankfully the shapes did manage to get to the sky eventually, at 06:30 on Friday morning the beautiful skies of Bristol were filled with 81 balloons gently floating northerly across its wonderful sky-line. The Balloons that were able to make it to the sky included “Slick the Dragon” who was also sporting the UK’s only glass bottomed basket, which must be an unsettling experience to fly in, I’m sure! As well as the mighty ‘Slick’, the fiesta’s mystery balloon was at last revealed, the ‘Rowntrees Foamy Gnome’ inflated on the Thursday evenings tethering making its public debut. The 150ft hot air balloon will be making a tour of the UK to advertise the Rowntree Randoms sweets, creating random scenes at all locations it visits.

Disappointingly due to weather, the next launch would be carried out a whole 60 hours later, which was caused by both a mixture of high winds and poor visibility making conditions too tricky for flight across the two days; this meant unfortunately Fiesta Director Clive Bailey was unable to give a green light on the assents. But there was always hope for the final planned launch of the Fiesta with a forecast of calm winds and beautiful unbroken sunshine the show was certainly going to finish on a high. The pre-launch briefing was called at 17:40 on Sunday evening and as expected the departure was called ‘on’ with flyable winds and no bad weather expected.

However, it wasn’t going to be an easy journey for the crews, with a 010° wind, they would be finding themselves very quickly in the middle of Bristol International Airports runway 27 approach and as a result of those met forecasts a very serious briefing was to follow, the briefing really illustrated how important prior planning is to any flight, regardless of transport. Bristol’s air traffic control kindly granted crews to cross their approach at no lower than 4,000ft ultimately making the launch possible.

Fortunately, one of the Balloon Fiesta’s most enjoyed spectacles takes place firmly on the ground, with roughly 30balloons filling the arena with light, as they resemble large candles flickering in Bristol’s night sky.  In the company of 100 people on-looking from the crowd, the balloons inflate and tether in rows as they follow specific radio instructions to achieve a fantastic night performance, radio instructions are kept fairly simple, with the basic commands ‘Odd’ and ‘Even’ to identify the balloons, ‘On’ ‘Off’ and ‘Flicker’ to set their glowing state. The show comes to an end with a stunning firework display over the top of the balloons, with the national anthem playing in sync.

Also in attendance for the third consecutive year were the world famous RAF Red Arrows who put on a stunning performance as always, the Reds operated from near-by Bristol International Airport for their display and inspired many on-lookers across Bristol as they performed their signature dare devil manoeuvres in what was a tricky display venue for them, due to Ashton Court being reasonably shallow with it’s on looking hills.

With the Thursday and Saturday night glows a success and the ability to have two balloon launches, the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta was complete for another year, all that is left to do now is pray for better weather in 2011.