September 20, 2018, by Lindsay Brooke

On Sky Safari with G-NUNI – the University of Nottingham’s hot air balloon

The University of Nottingham’s hot air balloon took part in a British record-breaking ascent into the skies over Wiltshire on Saturday 15 September. This year’s Exclusive Cup Sky Safari at Longleat, organised by Exclusive Ballooning, proved to be the biggest event of its kind the UK has ever seen, and G-NUNI was taking part for the first time.

G-NUNI took to the skies along with 170 balloons making a spectacular sight over the countryside in the early morning sunshine. It took to the air piloted by Richard Benham. Saturday morning’s record-breaking flight ended with an exciting, bumpy but safe landing for G-NUNI in a field near Warminster.

The University’s hot air balloon is operated by a loyal volunteer support team led by Yvonne Stephenson.





Yvonne said: “Taking part in events like this requires an enormous amount of background work and coordination, but for me and the team it’s always worth it just to see G-NUNI airborne.”





The G-NUNI legacy

The University of Nottingham’s hot air balloon and ground kit was left to the institution by the late Dr Janet Folkes, University engineering expert and world-record breaking gas and hot air balloon pilot. Following her untimely death in January 2012 Yvonne and her team have continued to do all they can to keep G-NUNI flying.

Yvonne said: “Janet is our motivation. She introduced my husband Paul and me to this wonderful sport, for which we will always be grateful. It was her wish that we kept the balloon flying. She really wanted to encourage young people to fly, particularly women as there are still so few women entering the sport. Janet was known by hot air balloonists all over the world, so we really feel that we were taught by a master within the ballooning community and we look after G-NUNI as if it were our own. It is a legacy Janet left in our care and she would be proud to know that we are actively introducing new people to the sport.”

The G-NUNI team at Longleat

The team are all self-employed and give up their own time to maintain and fly the balloon as frequently as possible. This years’ Exclusive Cup Sky Safari crew at Longleat were made up of:

Pilot: Richard Benham (one of the two main pilots and a good friend of Janet).





Flying Crew: Yvonne and Paul Stephenson. As well as providing the retrieve vehicle, Paul, officially now a Pilot Under Training (PUT), is in the process of increasing his flying hours and preparing for the various aviation exams that are required for him to qualify. As both current pilots live far afield and have work commitments, adding Paul to the pilot crew will provide long-term continuity for the University and significantly increase opportunities to fly the balloon both at events on behalf of the University and for fun too.

Paul said: “We try to fly as often as the weather is right and our current pilots are available. We are also trying to build on the number of events that we attend.”





Crew: Dave and Caroline Barnes who Paul and Yvonne introduced to ballooning 3 years ago were manning the retrieve vehicle for the first time. This involves keeping track of the balloon from the ground and ensuring they have landowner permission where required to drive onto the final landing spot to bring the pilot and his passengers and crew back safely.

Dave said: “When the alarm goes off at 5am you wonder why you do this! It’s hard work but it’s good fun. There’s a lot to be done before the balloon leaves the ground to ensure everything is checked and prepared for launch. There’s also a great social side to the sport.”

Keeping G-NUNI flying

Keeping G-NUNI flying is a huge responsibility. It must be fully insured and maintained in order to keep it airworthy. As an aircraft under UK law, it undergoes an annual Certificate of Airworthiness Inspection by an approved Inspector. The whole kit is examined and tested from the structure of the basket and the high-pressure titanium propane tanks, right through to the cables and the envelope itself. There are additional less frequent checks that must be undertaken and the British Balloon and Airship Club (BBAC) keeps Yvonne updated of any new safety or other enforcements that are on the horizon so the team can ensure that G-NUNI remains airworthy.

The balloon has made regular appearances at the annual Chatsworth country fair and was also a big attraction at the Poacher International Scout and Guide Jamboree 2017 when it made two flights out of the Lincolnshire Showground. As a tethered ground-based activity, it gave over 800 scouts and guides their chance to climb into the basket, receive a pilot briefing and try their hand on the burner to get a sense of what it would be like to fly in a hot air balloon.

Yvonne currently has around 20 people on her list of volunteers who help keep G-NUNI flying, from trained ground and retrieve crew to pilots and those who help to maintain the kit. On the list of team tasks for this winter will be to give the basket a good dose of TLC which will involve a thorough jet wash, followed by a coat of Danish Oil to help keep it looking good for years to come!

Our thanks to photographer Andrew Hallsworth who took these fantastic photographs at the Longleat event. He’s also part of the G-NUNI team and is passionate about helping them to keep the balloon flying on behalf of the University. Search #skysafari or @XBallooning on twitter to see more pictures of the event.


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