Monthly Talks

Talks are held in the FAAM auditorium on the last Thursday of each month (except August and December) at 19.30. The entry price is £7.00. (unless otherwise stated). Non members are welcome. The price includes light refreshments, including a glass of wine. These are very popular events and numbers are limited. Members can buy tickets online or telephone the Museum Shop (01935 842617 or 01935 842616) to order and tickets can be posted out or collected from the Museum.

Monthly Talks 2017

Tickets are available both from our ticket box and online. Remaining Tickets can be bought on the night as capacity allows. For any queries please contact the ticket box on 01935 842617.

For further details on any of the monthly talks, please contact us

28th September

A general update on Bristol airport.  Plans for the future of the airport and video footage.

Speaker: Paul Davies MBE, Operations Director, Bristol Airport


26th October

‘Films from the back of the cupboard – more FAAM archive footage’

Barbara Gilbert, Archive Collections Officer and Phil MacQuaid

30th November

“Flight Testing the AW159 Wildcat Helicopter at Sea”

Presented by Mark Burnard, Deputy Chief Test Pilot at Leonardo Helicopters.

The lecture will discuss the rigorous flight testing process that has been conducted to ensure that the Wildcat is fit for purpose in the uncompromising maritime role.


The 1992 Atlantic Balloon Race

The Transatlantic Balloon Race took place in 1992, using five identical balloons, made in Bristol by Cameron Balloons Ltd. It is the one and only time such a race has taken place – why? Cost. It was a hugely expensive undertaking, with each balloon costing around £100,000 each and that was 25 years ago, when a pint of beer cost £1.29. On top of that would be the stunning cost of the support organisation. So, how did it ‘get off the ground’ at all? It was Don Camerons dream to fly the Atlantic by balloon – something he had tried in the 1970s, making a crossing starting in Canada, which unfortunately failed due to a leak from a small tear, which occurred only 100 or so miles from Europe. So close. The idea never went away and in due course, Don’s plans and ideas coincided with the plans of the Chrysler Corporation of America to make a large scale launch of its brand of cars in Europe. They were looking for a big event to associate with to promote the name Chrysler and Don was looking for a sponsor. The match was made.

Crossing the Atlantic by balloon was not a new idea. There have been several attempts, the earliest recorded being in 1873, which ditched 3 hours after launching from New York. Another was made in 1970, which sadly disappeared without trace, then in 1978 Don Cameron made his first attempt and also in 1978 an American team in the Double Eagle II made it all the way to France in 130 hours. Also in 1978 Richard Branson set off with Per Lindstrand (another very experienced balloonist) at which time they made landfall in Ireland in the manner of a heavy bump. Per Lindstrand shouted ‘jump’ as he did so himself and for one reason or another Richard Branson did not and ended his journey a little later, being rescued from the sea.

Before Rob Bayly took us into the detail of the Race, he first gave us a brief background to ballooning. A quick show of hands in the audience made it clear that around one third or more had already experienced a hot air balloon ride. Annually, Bristol hosts a balloon festival where scores of hot air balloons rise into the air, not quite all at once. As you can imagine throughout the evening we watched a lot of beautiful sequences of film showing balloons being prepared and in flight. One common remark by those who have flown is the sound, which could be called silence, because there is no wind noise. You are moving with the wind, so you don’t hear it. Consequently you hear any other sound very clearly – of bird song; of people on the ground talking and so on. Rob also explained that contrary to expectations, balloons can be steered, particularly when close to the ground, where layers of air flow in different directions – climb higher and you steered to the right, lose height and you will steer to the left, etc.. Like anything, the more experience you have, the more easily you can ‘feel’ the scope and options. A typical hot air balloon flight will last around 1½ hours. Not long enough to cross the Atlantic. As the name says, hot air balloons comprise an open basket for passengers and crew, attached to a large air bag which is filled with hot air from a gas-fired burner. When sufficient hot air is contained in the bag, it rises and control is maintained by replenishing the hot air as required.

A duration of just hours is insufficient for an Atlantic crossing, so instead a combination is used, where helium in a sealed sphere is mounted above a conical sleeve. The air inside the conical sleeve can be heated using conventional hot air balloon propane burners. The hot air facility provides additional lift for heat loss when the sun goes down and for climbing to a higher altitude, etc.. This type of balloon is known as a Roziere balloon.For the race, five international teams were competing all in identical balloons made by Cameron Balloons and named Chrysler 1, Belgium; Chrysler 2, Germany; Chrysler 3, Britain; Chrysler 4, Holland; and Chrysler 5, USA. All were to take off from the same place at the same time. The winner would be the first balloon to land in Europe. Don Cameron and Rob Bayly crewed the British entry, Chrysler 3. During the build-up intensive training took place including time in a hyperbaric chamber to experience loss of air pressure, plus of course parachute training, all exciting stuff in themselves. Take off was from Bangor, near Boston, USA and the journey was expected to take around 5 days.

Eventually, the big moment arrived. Just after midnight in calm, still air on 16 September 1992 Chrysler 1 took off in a blaze of floodlights as the National Anthem for Belgium was broadcast, followed immediately by Chrysler 2 against the back-drop of the German National Anthem and then the others followed in sequence. The race had started. The first 12 to 15 hours were to be overland across Nova Scotia to test all the systems, one of which was the helium system, which vented gas if it became too hot. To begin with the speed was little more than 5 to 6 kts, which rose to nearer 8 to 9kts as dawn started to break. Rather eerily the only sound was that of foghorns, of which there are 15 along that coast. At sea level it was quite misty.

Once at around 10,000ft, Chrysler 3 dropped some sand ballast to gain more height rather than use precious gas. 24 hours after lift off, they were still overhead Nova Scotia and each of the other balloons was still within sight. With the increasing altitude it became quite cold outside and being practical Rob and Don wore appropriate footwear to help keep warm – yes, what else would you expect from a couple of true Brits, they wore woolly slippers bought in Marks & Spencer. Inside the cabin itself, it became very hot by contrast. Food was stored outside of the cabin in the cold air to keep it fresh. Generally speaking the food comprised plenty of fruit, plus self-heating cans of food and soup. Throughout the race radio contact was maintained with Rotterdam for weather forecasts – sent in the form of maps, via fax. What they were looking for were zonal flows preferably in a straight line giving good conditions and heading towards Europe. A small generator was carried by each balloon to charge the batteries for the radio. Information was also shared between each team to ensure safety, even though they were racing each other.

One feature they had all been told to expect was an overpass at great altitude by Concorde on its scheduled passenger service. What they did not expect was the almighty sonic boom followed by a pressure wave that caused Rob to exclaim ‘Wow’ (so he tells us). The pictures we were shown were magical. It is hard to imagine being carried along just by wind power and seeing around you nothing but sea and sky. Rob found it a very humbling experience realising that you are alone and very small in this vast space. Don, a very calm man himself played Pink Floyd! Rob and Don took turns to sleep for about an hour at a time and wore oxygen masks as required. Propane burners were used to maintain altitude at night when the cold would otherwise have made the balloon lose height. As the propane canisters became empty they were dropped to lose weight. In all Chrysler 3 dropped three of their eight canisters. Not something you do rashly, at a cost of £800 each.

In all, the journey total was to be around 2,500 miles, yet after three days they were still level with St. Johns, Newfoundland. It was all going a bit slower than expected. However, the German team flew at a lower altitude and were apparently achieving a speed of 20 to 25 knots. That was their good news, but what could be seen on the horizon was not so good. The weather was starting to get visibly heavier and the last thing a balloon needs is rain or storms. Rain makes a balloon heavier and the German team was already at a lower altitude and things were not looking at all good for them. Having reached a third of the journey, the German balloon was becoming overwhelmed by the weight of rainwater and they were getting low on propane gas. It was decided to declare an emergency and prepare to ditch. The US Coastguard immediately flew out to co-ordinate a rescue and a nearby tanker took the crew on board safely. Meanwhile Rob Bayly and Don Cameron were flying serenely at a much higher altitude above all the drama and bad weather (typically not above 20,000ft for comfort). The USA team was flying even higher, to meet the needs of their own private agenda, which was not to be the first to arrive in Europe, but instead to undertake the longest duration flight!

On Day 6 (21 September), the Belgian team were in the lead and triumphantly made a race-winning landing in Spain – upright. The Dutch team meanwhile had got caught in a deep depression weather system spiral and found they were going too fast for safety. Regretfully, but wisely they too declared an emergency and landed on the water while they could still do so. A Sea King from RNAS Culdrose flew out to their rescue. While all this was happening, the British entry was about 100 miles offshore with no means of communication. The generator had failed and nothing would get it back in action. The journey continued towards the Portuguese landscape visible ahead, which was lovely to see but comprised a beach surrounded by dense forest. Not a great deal of choice on where to land, so the drag ropes to cushion the descent were ready to be dropped to try and place the balloon on the narrow stretch of beach. In the event, the balloon touched down about 100 yards from the beach but dragged across the wave tops to rest on the beach itself – not upright, Rob hastened to add. After 128 hours in the air, they had made it, albeit in second place behind the Belgian team. Nevertheless it was good to arrive, and safely at that. A very emotional moment. Don Cameron had achieved his dream. The British balloon, Chrysler 3, now resides in the Rotterdam showroom of a Chrysler dealership, for all to see. The USA team happily drifted further away and landed as desired having remained airborne for 144 hours, on Day 7, in Morocco.

What was it like living in such close proximity for 6 days? Rob and Don got on very well with each other. The fact that Cadburys supplied a handsome amount of chocolate also went down well.It was a splendid evening’s entertainment with lots of drama and blissful vistas. Thank you Rob Bayly.

Summarised by Robert Heath

View video of October 2015 Talk by Captain Adrian Orchard OBE, CO RNAS Culdrose

View video of September 2015 Talk by Sqn Ldr Maurice Biggs RAF Rtd

View video of June 2015 Talk by Rod Dean