Up, up and away
Peter Dowlen is a larger-than-life personality from the ballooning world, a representative of insurance broker, J Bennett & Son and whose flying escapades have become the subject of a series of amusing cartoons. This is part of a recent interview with Aerostat Magazine the official journal of the British Balloon & Airship Club.
How did you get into ballooning?
I started through a friend in 1976, who learned to fly at Cirencester Agricultural College. I was always interested in aviation and, as an Air Cadet, I was lucky enough to fly Chipmunks, which whetted my appetite. After leaving school, I carried on flying fixed wing, building up hours to get my PPL.
What are your memories of your first balloon flight?
It was 16th October 1976, with my friend Rob Fuller. We landed in a tree. It was in Snapdragon, G-BCRE, a Cameron O-77 with a Velcro rip. We were fortunate that the tree was opposite the Dog & Pheasant pub in Brook, near Godalming, Surrey. They had just opened as we finished packing away. I seem to remember being driven home after we were shown the door at closing time. I thought, this is great fun!
What do you find most difficult about ballooning?
The fickleness of the British weather, but with the keenness and loyalty of a local crew, we usually get lucky. If we meet and the wind doesn’t drop, the Black Horse in Great Missenden serves excellent ales from a local client, the Rebellion Brewery Company, in Marlow.
What was your most memorable flight?
There have been a number, but probably it was the flight over the English Channel with Mary in 1992. Sixty-two other balloons under the supervision of ace organiser, Derek Belton, flew a charity event, most landing at Calais airport after a two-hour flight. We landed at the far end of the runway and enjoyed some champagne whilst we awaited retrieval. By the time we got into the terminal, the other pilots had finished all the beer!
What was your most scary moment?
It was during a thunderstorm in Holland. An ‘expert’ met guy from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport had assured us, when giving the met, that there was no thunder in the vicinity. Minutes after take off, we found out how wrong he was, and had to make an emergency landing into a cow field, just missing all of the cows. Fortunately, I had two very large German ladies on board and the basket stopped quickly and the envelope fully deflated immediately. Thirty seconds after that, there was a bright flash and then a huge clap of thunder, followed by gusts well over 30 knots. We got soaked, but were safe.
What appeals most about ballooning?
The freedom and camaraderie and all those serendipity moments.
Where have you flown abroad?
Ireland, Holland, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, USA, and of course all over the UK.
What’s your favourite balloon event?
There are too many to mention, but high on the list would be The Irish Meet, Twente Ballooning and latterly Todi. I have attended every Irish Championships since 1985.
What balloons do you currently fly?
Current balloon, a Cameron Z-90, G-CIJB, and an older envelope is a Cameron N-105, G-OJBS. Both are affectionately called Bennett.
How often do you fly?
I used to fly about eighty times a year and it’s now down to about thirty. Quality, not quantity, as you get older.
What’s your favourite ballooning anecdote?
I heard a story where a fellow balloonist flew in fog. The forecaster said the fog would lift shortly, so our intrepid pilot, fully believing the forecast, took off. After an hour’s flight, the fog had got much worse, but he decided to gingerly start a descent. As he was tapping his altimeter to check height, he had the misfortune to see the ground coming up fast.
He grabbed the burners, with both hands, and started to burn, turning on all taps. But it was too late. In his path, looming through the fog, was a greenhouse, followed by a large vegetable patch and a beautiful row of runner beans, in full bloom. Next, the silence of the day was broken by the crashing of glass, mixed with 24 million BTUs of propane shooting up into the envelope. The basket continued through the greenhouse and then into the beans. The continual burning at last started to work. Wrenching the entire row of beans from the ground, stalks and all, our pilot is now approaching the house, at the same time as trying to extract the bean system. At roof level, he neatly pushed all the canes holding the beans off the basket and over the apex of the house. Our pilot then disappears like a cork out of water, into the blue sky and safety. Twenty minutes later the fog begins to clear and a safe landing is made. I often wonder what the householder thought, as they woke to find the carnage outside and on the roof.
How long did it take to get your licence?
Three years – marriage to my wife, Gail, in1978 intervened, so it could have been quicker.
How was your first solo flight?
It was shortly after my check flight with Gerry back in October 1979. It was interesting to say the least, as I used the trail rope on landing. Bad idea, on your own in a 77 with a Velcro rip. I went up again, but fortunately the crew were fit and ran across the field, grabbed the line and got me down.
What are your ballooning goals?
Purely to enjoy myself safely and carry on as long as I can, health and regulations permitting.
What’s your passion outside of ballooning?
All country sports, allotment gardening, motorcycling and cooking. I also enjoy nice meals, including fine wine and travel.
How did you get involved in balloon insurance?
It was following my joining the Snapdragon Syndicate. I was already working in insurance, which helped me get to know the market and start work to design our own scheme. When I joined J. Bennett & Son in 1984, we insured several balloons with Generali of Italy and Lloyds of London. The first J. Bennett balloon came on the scene in the Summer of ‘87, which sparked the growth of our Balloon Insurance business, culminating in us finally creating our own scheme, with our own wording and claims handling facility.
How many balloonists does J. Bennett & Son insure?
We have approaching 200 policies and insure over 500 balloons. It is a real mix of private and commercial balloonists. From a small hopper up to 16 passenger public transport balloons.
You can read more articles like this one in the latest edition of Thame Out.