As the South West’s largest family event, the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta rarely fails to deliver. 2011 brought a record-breaking crowd to celebrate 40 years of ‘Made in Bristol’. Michael Buckle reports from Ashton Court for AeroResource.

This year the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta enters its 33rd year of operations. In 2011 its creator Don Cameron is celebrating 40 years of his world-renowned balloon manufacturing company, Cameron Balloons.

To mark this fine achievement, “Made in Bristol” quickly became the theme of the fiesta, the perfect place for Don to celebrate amongst his friends, fellow pilots and customers.

The weather is a key player in the success of any ballooning event, even more so for those hosted within the UK with such unpredictable weather patterns. The weeks leading up to the fiesta gave worrying forecasts with overcast skies and tricky wind conditions predicted. Luckily for the balloonists, as time progressed the forecast became considerably more friendly, although cloud was still being forecast as very prominent.

Over the four days the fiesta hosts seven mass ascents combining a mixture of up to 100 special shapes, sponsored and privately owned balloons all getting airborne to float across the city.  The event is usually kicked off by a launch on Thursday evening, which is then followed by two launches a day on each of the three remaining days. Sadly this year the first launch was delayed until Friday morning, due to Thursdays weather conditions.

This year the pilots accomplished a 57% success rate; managing four of the seven launch slots, with the three unlucky cancellations being caused by high winds at various altitudes.  The most disheartening cancellation took place on Sunday, when we were blessed with wall-to-wall sunshine and blue skies, but a 15 knot wind quickly put an end to any hopes of flying taking place. Thankfully a few crews tethered their balloons for the crowd.

Unfortunately for the wrong reasons the Bristol Balloon Fiesta did manage to make national wide media coverage. The reporting began when Pilot Martin Read had a collision with the side of a semi-detached house in the Kingswood area of Bristol. The incident occurred when Martin took the decision to swap gas canisters during the hour-long flight and experienced an unexpectedly large decent in altitude. Thankfully both the crew and homeowners escaped the accident with no injuries, but not the kind of publicity the BIBF were looking for.

The most popular attraction of the event has always been the two spectacular nightglows. Up to 30 balloons light up the skies around the venue in perfect synchronization to dramatic music. The two displays were this year choreographed by Dave Groombridge and Ian Martin – both Dave and Ian carried out months of preparation ensuring the perfect tracks were selected for each of their themes.

The Thursday nightglow put together by Dave was themed upon ‘a night at the movies’ displaying alongside popular movie theme-tunes. The second nightglow was performed with the wonderful theme ‘40 years of huge hits’, choreographed by Ian. Much credit must be given to both the organizers and pilots, who perform the remarkable display without prior practice runs together with very few visible mistakes.

The Saturday show certainly caught the imagination of the crowd, as many loud gasps were heard followed by a huge round of applause around the arena as the glow began with all the pilots activating their Wisper Burners together. The bright yellow flames light up the beautiful Ashton Court estate, in perfect harmony with the wonderfully timed music. The crowd’s approval was not premature as the display continued with the same brilliance as it started.

Sky Burst fireworks provided the finale, unfortunately this year with the fireworks not being performed over the top of the balloon display which used to make a fantastic photograph, the decision was made due to various safety and improvement reasons, but Cameron Balloons did kindly keep their Z-105 inflated throughout the Saturday finale display.

The next amazing sight for the crowd was the world famous Royal Air Force Red Arrows and their breath taking aerobatic display, the team are now in their 3rd year of displaying at the BIBF, clearly a great crowd pleaser and one which is sure to be welcomed back with open arms for next years show.

With four launches and two nightglows, 2011 can certainly be considered a success, even if the weather wasn’t completely on our side. The author wishes to thank Dani Marlborough and the media team at BIBF for their assistance over the event.

The 2012 Bristol International Balloon Fiesta is expected to take place on the 9th-12th August, with hopefully plenty of calm winds and sunshine.