The Yarra Valley – Victoria – Australia.

Mark Fraser, the laid-back, laconic Chief Pilot of Go Wild Ballooning, called me in the summer of 2012 and asked if I would pilot his 400,000 cubic-foot balloon to ten thousand feet over the Yarra Valley with twenty-two skydivers on board, for a world record single drop. 

‘Of course,’ I said, and the date was set.

The Yarra Valley, in Victoria, is about twelve miles across, at its widest point, and well known for its vineyards, fine food and five-star accommodation.

However, to the west of the Valley squats the sprawling Melbourne metropolis, with its abundant above-ground power lines that are readily navigable in the smaller 10-passenger balloons, but not so-much in the 24-passenger, 400,000 cubic ft balloons, that operate over the Valley. It’s best not to end up over the city in a big balloon, with its small landing sites. The Yarra Valley has large paddocks, and more landing options.

To the north, south and east of the Valley exist extensive forests, with few landing sites. The Yarra Valley passenger balloons stay over the farms, below 2,000 feet, and operate in light winds, providing passengers with an hour’s flight over picturesque vineyards. Above 2,000 feet, there’s often a quick wind ready to take the balloon on a journey to destruction. Commercial balloon pilots are always cautious about balloon operating conditions, and locations. Fare-paying passengers want relaxing flights, over picturesque terrain with gentle landings–and so do the pilots. However, dropping 22 sky-divers from 10,000 ft over the Yarra Valley was an entirely different story.

Possibly the balloon retrieve vehicle, used by Joseph Dean to recover his gas balloon after over-flying Melbourne in 1858.

We launched beside Mt Dandenong, and remained in the wind shadow for the climb out. However, once above the mountain, a twenty-knot southerly kicked in and the balloon picked up speed. Travelling at 20 knots, I estimated a thirty minute flight-time to Dixons Creek, which was the last landing site at the north end of the Valley. Beyond Dixons Creek loomed Kinglake National Park, with its millions of acres of tall gum trees, ready to rip a balloon to shreds on landing. Still, it wasn’t my balloon, and setting a new aviation record is always a dangerous ask. 

Above Mt Dandenong, and climbing at 500 feet per minute, I needed sixteen more minutes to reach 10,000 feet, which was Mark Fraser’s preferred altitude for jumping out. Unfortunately, that plan left only fourteen minutes for the descent, which wasn’t enough time to remain inside the Valley.

Levelling out at 10,000 feet and staying over the Yarra Valley wouldn’t work, not while travelling at twenty knots. Even if I dropped the skydivers at 8,000 feet, I would be hard-pressed staying south of Kinglake National Park. My mind went into overdrive doing the calculations.

Fraser owned the balloon and was pushing for 10,000 feet, knowing the risks, but he was departing under parachute and would land safely in the Valley. I was taking the gamble, although I too had a parachute. However, if I survived a Kinglake landing, but destroyed a balloon, I wouldn’t survive a CASA enquiry and would likely have my pilot’s licence suspended.

Mark Fraser Photograph.

We compromised on 9,000 feet. On reaching that altitude, I vented hot air by opening a parachute at the crown. Once I released the vent line, the parachute resealed under thermal pressure. Open. Close. And down we went. At 8,000 feet, the skydivers departed in a cluster. When the jumpers jumped, the balloon, unweighted by 2,000 kilograms, started climbing at 1,500 feet a minute, which was about the same rate that we had been descending.

The sudden change in direction produced a mushroom shaped balloon, and when viewed from the ground must have looked like a colourful nuclear cloud. The sudden distortion pushed hot air out through the mouth of the balloon, boiling the pilot (me), but it also stressed the old fabric well beyond the manufacturer’s warranty. Stitching popped in a few of the over-stretched lower panels. Somehow the old balloon held together, but the vent dislodged as it cooled further.

With minimal thermal pressure, the vent floated freely inside the balloon and exposed lots of blue sky. The balloon was seconds away from instantaneous, total collapse, which is always a bad outcome. 

The aircraft was ridiculously out of balance and much too lightly loaded to be safely flown. With almost no internal pressure, it was rapidly turning from a psychedelic, mushroom shaped cloud, into a streaming candle-shaped nightmare. No one had ever been in this situation, doing what I was doing. It was borderline insanity. 

‘You’re missing a sprocket.’ I could hear Joan’s voice, from the Californian commune, all those years ago.**

Lite Vent.

In any other balloon, with the vent askew, I would have abandoned the aircraft under parachute and followed Mark Fraser to the nearest pub. However, I didn’t need to jump. Kavanagh Balloons had developed Lite Vent, a deflation system that allowed me to haul the parachute back into place and instantly reseal the hole. A few seconds of burning popped the balloon back into its natural shape, and the catastrophic collapse was averted.

Using the vent-return-rope (VRR), which was especially designed for the job, allowed me to continue descending under control, while keeping the balloon inflated. The aircraft manufacturer matters. 

With a final two-second burn, I levelled out at the north end of the Yarra Valley and landed in the last field before the wilderness, unfortunately deflating the balloon across a barbed wire fence.

I’ve been apologising to Mark Fraser ever since.

** Joan Tesfaye, a Californian hippy, picked me up, hitchhiking my way to Yosemite in 1973. We diverted for a couple of weeks onto her commune, near Modesto. A few months later, I moved an Airstream packed full of Mexican marijuana – recovered from a plane that crashed in the Sierra mountains – onto her property. Everest, Guns & Money tells the full story.