A load of hot air
Behind the scenes with the world's largest hot air balloon maker, Cameron Balloons.
Words by Sam Bradley and illustration by Bethany Thompson.
The skies above Bristol are a crowded parcel of airspace. Each summer, pilots and pigeons jostle for room as more than 130 hot air balloons take flight for the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air balloon festival in Europe and a high point of the year in the UK’s hot air ballooning capital.
While Bristolians may be used to the silent parade of colourful balloons floating above the August skyline, the city hosts aeronautic activity all year round, with the world’s biggest hot air balloon manufacturer, Cameron Balloons, based in the city. This family business has been building hot air balloons in Bristol for 47 years – from record-breaking balloons made to circumnavigate the Earth, to daring builds that use challenging shapes and clever tricks of design to get off the ground, as well as bespoke hot air balloons for casual pilots. To find out what it’s like behind the scenes at a hot air balloon factory, Counterpoint spoke to Hannah Cameron, the firm’s Managing Director.
While hot air balloons are the company’s core business, Cameron Balloons also makes inflatable art installations, street furniture for music festivals, and specialist medical equipment. “It's anything with fabric, and usually a lot of it,” says Hannah. Her team has become famous for its work stretching the limits of textile design and aeronautics, producing fantastic inflatable objects for balloon festivals like the Fiesta, or for marketing companies promoting films and attractions.
Hannah tells me about a project that the team is working on at the time of writing, for a Russian client determined to “take a trip into space”.
“We're just now building a balloon for a pilot who told us that he wants to see ‘The inky blackness of the cosmos.’ So he is going to fly to about 85,000 ft, but he wants to do it in a hot air balloon,” she says.
Building a craft that can climb to 85,000ft into the Earth’s stratosphere – well above the usual heights attained by commercial airliners – comes with a peculiar set of challenges.
“That’s not easy, because if you think of the atmosphere and how it changes as you go [the pressure] and also the oxygen, so if you think of normal combustion, you need three things - oxygen, a fuel source and a source of ignition. So if you've got much less oxygen, you'll have to develop a burner that can work really well in that environment, but also as you come down through the atmosphere, will still work really well. That's a massive challenge at the moment.”
Each project finds Hannah’s team combining graphic design, aeronautical engineering and textile manufacturing. Taking me through the balloon-building process from start to finish, Hannah says that Cameron Balloons handle every aspect of production – from cutting and printing striking designs onto the envelope of the balloon, to manufacturing specialised burners and handweaving the baskets from wicker with traditional weaving methods.
After confirming design choices with customers with a computer visualisation of the balloon, Hannah’s team split each job into three parts. “The envelope, with the instructions of what the customer wants, will to go the planning and graphics department, and they’d start working out the artwork and planning all the different bits and pieces that go into the balloon – there’s all manner of control systems and things that happen inside.” Meanwhile the envelope, made from exceptionally strong nylon fabric, is taken to the cutting floor where bright colours and eye-catching graphics are printed onto the fabric with advanced printing techniques before being cut into shape.
While Cameron Balloon’s engineering team make up bespoke gas burners for the balloon, another team builds the basket, using traditional wicker and handweaving techniques. “We’d plan out the frames and work with the customer on what kind of finish they’d want on the basket. We’d also work out what kind of size it would be – it has to work with the balloon, so you couldn't have a massive 32-person basket on a tiny one-man balloon.
“Six to 28 weeks later, you'll end up with your balloon all finished, all certified and approved, ready to go. We organise dispatch or you can come and collect, which a lot of people love to do actually, because they love to have a little look around the factory while they're here.”
The hardest shapes, Hannah says, are “Pancakes and bicycles”, because balloons need a large volume to float properly. “Although, we have made a motorbike, because we were able to increase the size of things like the fuel cylinder. We were able to sort of puff that out a bit and still make it look very sensible. And by shortening things like the handlebars in relation to a real motorbike, you can really get it looking lifelike but still working very effectively as a hot air balloon.”
Despite the challenges involved in designing and producing balloons with such strange shapes, or which are capable of feats of flight usually reserved for specialist aircraft, Hannah says that flying the balloons themselves is simple enough. A pilot herself, she makes it sound breathlessly easy. “It’s quite straightforward, it’s like driving a car. Except you’ve got that 3D-ness to it.”
The final stage with any project, Hannah says, is a flight test carried out by one of the firm’s many pilots. From a staff of 65, about a third are qualified pilots, she says. “We test them all. It’s something we’re required to do, but we’re happy to do it. I always say to customers: if we’re not prepared to get into it, then why should you?”