A Newbie Experiences the Hunter Valley Fiesta

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First printed in Aeronotes (Official Journal of the Australian Ballooning Federation) Volume 36 No 1 (March, 2014). Links to sites added for this online version.

For the last weekend of October, 2013, Matt Scaife & the team from Balloon Aloft in the Hunter Valley opened their doors to sport balloonists to fly alongside their passenger balloons for the Hunter Valley Balloon Fiesta. This is the second year the event has been run and it coincides with the Jazz in the Vines event so the Hunter is full of visitors and bookings for the passenger flights run hot. There’s also a large number of photographers in attendance to get shots of the balloons inflating & flying away.

VH-BRR (a Kavanagh E-120) enjoying some solitude

VH-BRR (a Kavanagh E-120) enjoying some solitude

A major concern for this year’s event was the number of fires burning around Sydney and the greater Hunter area. Thanks to the hard work of Matt Scaife and the Balloon Aloft team plus the generosity of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, the private balloons were allowed to fly under Balloon Aloft’s Total Fire Ban permit.

Fortunately there were no fires causing problems in the Cessnock area but an inversion layer on the Saturday morning kept a strata layer of smoke down low in the valley with haze beneath it making long range viewing difficult. At least the impressive view of the sun rising through the haze more than made up for it :)

While the commercial crews met their passengers at Peterson House, the sport balloonists met at Balloon Aloft’s property north of Cessnock to watch a pibal and discuss our options. From there we headed over to Leogate Estate Winery where we set up near the commercial operators on the fields around the property’s dam.

On Saturday morning we set up around the dam at Leogate Estate

On Saturday morning we set up around the dam at Leogate Estate

I was flying a 120 with 3 x 82L tanks and just Kitt (my partner) and I on board. Clearly we would be a tad light and packing up could be tricky so we needed to recruit another passenger on the launch field. With many photographers in the area trying to find good angles to catch the spectacle of 20 balloons launching, we had no problem finding a willing volunteer. Once airborne we told her that we weren’t just being generous by bringing her along :)

As a rather junior pilot flying for the first time in the Hunter Valley, I was happy to take my time and launch towards the end of the pack. While I wasn’t the last one off the ground, there weren’t many who launched after me and my crew was wondering if I’d ever get off the ground (sorry Sarah :) ).

Once in the air it was clear that the looking through the smoke haze into the rising sun was going to make spotting our target rather difficult, so I just followed everyone else & eventually managed to see where everyone was landing & deflating. During the flight we had a helicopter circling us taking photos & videos followed by a local Tigermoth that circled the pack a few times.

As we approached our destination at Hope Estate, we could see that some the crews had set up a target cross in a field and everyone was having a go at dropping their markers on it. I’m still not sure why I bothered trying to lob my marker at the target but suffice to say the results were certainly educational. Oh well :)

After trying for the target I had a go at landing where everyone else was but got myself into an overload situation and felt I was flying well behind the balloon so elected to continue to another field. Dave from Balloon Aloft called me on the radio to advise that so long as I landed south of the nearby road, all should be fine. This was when I experienced just how insidious getting overloaded can be as despite the fact I was flying towards the sun and had the road on my right, I was convinced that I was already south of the road.

I know, right? I’m still amazed that I could be so confused!

Looking down on the sky hopper balloon as it flew over a rather interesting looking house

Looking down on the sky hopper balloon as it flew over a rather interesting looking house

With a big field appearing in front of me and my geographically confused brain telling me I was in the right spot, I brought us in to land in perhaps the one spot in the whole Hunter Valley where balloons were not welcome. Ooops! Fortunately Sarah managed to smooth things over with the residents then came over to help with the pack up (the phrase “Don’t mind him, he’s from Melbourne” may have helped :) ). On the way out I went and apologised profusely for getting confused and landing in the wrong spot.

Great start, Grant! *sigh*

The next morning saw relatively clear skies and had us launching from clearings amongst the vines of Debortoli Wines. As it was Sarah’s turn to get some burner time, Kitt & a friend from Sydney were our ground crew, getting their first taste of chasing and some opportunities for more great photos. After a squeezy inflation amongst the other balloons, Sarah & I took off only to discover that neither of us had noticed a tangle in one of the rotation vent lines. While the balloon was gracefully pirouetting through the sky, Sarah spotted a small clearing next to a dam amongst the vines and nailed a great landing in the space available.

After some tussle with the rotation vent line, the tangle was cleared and we headed back up again for about half an hour before landing just a bit further up the road so Sarah could hop out & I could take over. Once Kitt and our friend were on board, I got us back up in the air and saw that I was well behind everyone else as they headed over to Hope Estate once again.

On Sunday one of the pilots decided to go for a splash-n-dash

On Sunday one of the pilots decided to go for a splash-n-dash

Despite attempting to ride the winds to land somewhere near the main field on the estate, I realised there was no hope (ouch! :) ) and went up to get winds that would take me south towards some clearings in the distance. Once again Dave was calling me to check that all was OK and advising that I shouldn’t go too far south. I let him know I was planning to land in some clearings ahead and that I was over the top of another balloon (the cloud hopper) so I wasn’t totally alone heading out this way.

We wound up coming in low over yet another dam and drifted into a great clearing amongst the vines of McLeish Estate. Fortunately these folks were very balloon-friendly and had no problem with Sarah coming in to pick us up.

On both days after the flight we would return to Peterson House for the post-flight breakfast & discussions. It was a great venue although it wound up being a little crowded on the Saturday with all the commercial passengers there as well as the sport pilots, such that on the Sunday the staff set up our tables on the grass near the vines. After the Sunday flight it was announced that Les Springett had won the target competition and would be taking home a case of wine. Nice one, Les! :)

A few of the private balloons launching on the Sunday morning

A few of the private balloons launching on the Sunday morning

With most of the private balloonists heading home on the Sunday, I elected to stick around a bit longer and get one more flight in. Sarah was heading home on Sunday so Matt arranged for one of the locals to crew for me. I had a couple of friends from the RAAF flying with Kitt & I, one of whom was usually found flying F18s beyond the speed of sound, so a peaceful balloon flight was quite the change for him :)

We launched from Lovedale Rd a little further on past Adina Wines and had fun playing around down low before heading up to explore the winds bracketing an inversion that was clearly identified by a layer of smoke. While trying to land in the same field as the others, the winds decreased & became variable. Despite my best efforts to get back to their field, I wound up landing in a different field on the other side of a creek from them. Apparently I managed to land in a field that no one had ever used before although once again the owners were balloon-friendly so all was well. Ooops!

To quote Matt: Good one Grant, that’s three for three!

DOH! :)

Following another breakfast at Peterson House, we bid our farewells & headed for Newcastle to put Kitt on a Virgin Australia jet for her flight back home to Melbourne. We’d had a fantastic time in the Hunter Valley and were sad to have to leave. The weekend had included flights in the mornings, exploring markets, wineries & the brewery in the afternoons and socialising with the other balloonists in the evenings.

Matt & his team arranged a great event and if you’ve never attended the fiesta before, I highly recommend you take the effort to do so. The Hunter is a lovely place to fly, the socialising is fun, the locals are friendly and there’s plenty to do when you’re not flying.

Hopefully next time I get to the Fiesta I’ll land in the same field as everyone else :)

Over half of the commercial & private balloons flying at the Fiesta

Over half of the commercial & private balloons flying at the Fiesta

(A full collection of the photos my lovely wife Kitt took during the event can be found at the Hunter Valley Fiesta set on my Flickr feed)

First printed in Aeronotes (Official Journal of the Australian Ballooning Federation) Volume 36 No 1 (March, 2014). Links to sites added for this online version.

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