‘Ballooning is a way of life but I wouldn’t have it any other way’
A bright red hot air balloon peacefully floating across a perfect blue sky is one of the sure signs that Summer has arrived.
And for those lucky few on board the balloon, the sight below is something to behold.
But even luckier still is Rebecca Cains, who for the last eight years has been the pilot at the helm of the Virgin Balloon for the East Midlands - taking off from Stamford Meadows, Rutland Water, Grimsthorpe Castle and Stoke Rochford Hall to name just a handful of locations.
But while she gets to enjoy stunning views from aboard her ship in the sky - along with up to 16 passengers each time - it’s not all plain sailing.
From March to November - the flying season - the single mother-of-two can’t make any plans, while she’s at the mercy of the British weather. Ideally her balloon would lift off twice a day seven days a week but of course, many flights get cancelled thanks mostly to unstable winds and she loses hours monitoring numerous forecasts looking at the specific times she’s hoping to be in the air to see whether she’ll be able to launch her 100ft tall balloon.
“It’s a way of life,” Rebecca tells the Mercury. “You just can’t plan anything - I have babysitters on standby 24 hours a day.
“But I wouldn’t have it any other way. You couldn’t do this if you didn’t absolutely love it.”
Understandably, the customer services team at Virgins Balloons deal with dozens of complaints from frustrated passengers desperate to get their feet off the ground. But Rebecca says many people are lucky and go up first time.
“We get lots of people saying it’s a lovely day and I’m sure it is when you’re sat in your garden. But we’re not flying at deckchair level and I have to consider the weather at 200ft up. Passenger safety comes first and I will never feel pressured to fly even when I’m standing in a field with 16 people desperate to fly. If it’s not the right conditions, it’s not worth the risk.”
Rebecca considers all aspects of the flights and advises passengers waiting for their flight “not to try and get in the head of a balloon pilot”.
“I’ve learnt to respect the elements but you get in tune with them as well. Sometimes I know that I’ve timed it exactly right to fly and afterwards, the winds have picked up or changed direction.”
Her pet hate is people not turning up for a flight they’ve got booked, meaning the balloon is not fully occupied when she knows there’s a long waiting list of people desperate to fly.
Virgin Balloons are the biggest operators in the UK and Rebecca says it is only when you’re up close to the giant red canopy, which is 400,000 cubic feet, that you realise the damage it could do.
Many flights are relocated from one location to another. Stamford is one such location where if it is particularly windy, Rebecca would rather move to an open field location such as Belton Woods, near Grantham, or Ferry Meadows at Peterborough, than risk attempting to take off in a small space like The Meadows surrounded by buildings.
If passenger safety is her main priority, her second consideration is for land owners - some of whom are not happy to see the colossal balloon land in their field.
But Rebecca is careful not to disturb newly planted crops or grazing animals and makes an effort to put the land back how she found it - kicking back the dirt after the basket bobs along the ground. She also works closely alongside the NFU and covers the cost if any damage is caused on landing.
While Rebecca says that ballooning is her passion, it hasn’t always been that way. Her first love, and something she still enjoys today, was sailing. Growing up in the south, it was a natural endeavour and in her early 20s, she became a Yachtmaster - and still keeps up to date with all her exams which help her in the air as well as in the sea. She joked that she is a “captain of the sea and sky”.
After initially working for many years as a window dresser at department stores in London, she turned back to sailing when she was looking for a new challenge. She helped to set up a charity that helped disadvantaged children through sailing and worked in child protection but said it was “very hard”.
She moved to Henley-on-Thames looking for another fresh challenge to keep her on her toes and it was then, around 20 years ago, that she bought a balloon company “before I could even fly”.
“It was a mad thing to do but I’ve never looked back. Ballooning is a passion.”
Since gaining both her private and commercial balloon licence, she’s racked up hundreds of flights, flying across Europe, as well as in places like Syria and Sri Lanka, even taking her oldest daughter, now 13, along for the ride. She used to supplement the flying with yacht deliveries in the winter but now with a four-year-old daughter as well, the winter when her balloon is safely stored away is a time to relax, refocus and catch up with family - although “it always goes by in a flash.”
Her oldest daughter has already inherited her mum’s passion for ballooning and has ambitions to start training soon although she can’t get her private licence until she’s 17. Commercial flights are already off the table for the teen.
“She’s seen the commitment you have to give,” Rebecca says. “It’s very hard work.”
Rebecca and her oldest daughter moved to Corby Glen about eight years ago after she landed the job with Virgin and her position from the skies means she’s got to know the area very well very quickly.
“Locally, Rutland Water is one of my favourite places to fly from although it’s a difficult launch site because it’s so high up. But I also love Nottingham because it’s a huge city and it seems so peaceful. You get a sense of perspective in the balloon but even now I see things that I’ve not seen before. Every flight is different.”
When they book, passengers are given a telephone number to call a few hours before their booked flight where they’re met with an automated message from Rebecca, either advising the flight is cancelled or it’s going ahead and the details. If the flight is cancelled, their voucher is extended until they get to fly.
“I love flying and I get disappointed as well if flights get cancelled, although I try to sound positive on the phone line,” says Rebecca. “All I do is take people along with me.”
No two landings are the same and she estimates the basket tipping over - people’s main fear - happens 50 per cent of the time but the main reaction is to laugh, which she actively encourages.
“A few weeks ago, the balloon tipped over and I had a 89-year-old woman laughing hysterically and she said: ‘That’s the most fun I’ve had on my back in a long time’.”
Of course Rebecca has seen her fair share of wedding proposals on board but says every flight is “special” even if the passenger didn’t receive it for a special occasion.
“I always say to people if you enjoyed the flight, come again because even if they go from the same location, they’ll see something different.”
Rebecca has two assistants Andy and Dave who take it in turns to help her - setting up the balloon and tracking it from the ground. Passengers are also encouraged to get involved in the whole process from unfurling the balloon to wrestling it back into its tiny bag at the end - much like a tent - before everyone, pilot and passengers, enjoy a well-earned glass of fizz to celebrate their flight. And Rebecca always has a tiny companion on board - Hugo, a Virgin Balloons pilot teddy.
Petite, Rebecca says strength and fitness are needed to pilot the balloon, particularly lifting if off and when she’s manoeuvring it safely back to ground.
“If I can get the balloon off the ground, which sometimes is challenging, I can get it back down. But every single flight is a buzz. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I always say I’ve got two offices. One at home filled with paperwork and one in the sky. You can guess which I prefer.”
To book a flight with Rebecca visit www.virginballoonflights.co.uk