FIONA Waite is scared of heights, yet whenever she can, she clambers into the basket of her hot air balloon and floats on high far above the countryside of East Staffordshire.
The 18-year-old can frequently be seen up in the air along with friends from the Honey B Balloon Team as they travel far and wide in Dugi, their balloon.
She has been spending time in and around balloons since she was a baby, as both her dad and her brother are enthusiastic ballooners. She is now training for her own pilot’s licence so she can take the helm herself – and take the balloon as high up as she can go.
“I’m terrified of heights, but I’m so used to balloons that it doesn’t connect. It doesn’t feel like we’re flying,” she told the Mail.
“It’s a thrilling form of aviation and so different to anything else.
“You are flying with the wind so there’s no wind in your hair or anything, but you’re flying and you can see everything below you and everything is so calm.”
Her dad was the one who got her interested in the sport. He started it up when he was a child, Fiona said. He saw some balloons flying and chased them to see where they were coming from. Fiona said she cannot imagine not being around balloons.
She said she thought she first went inside a basket as a small baby, and she was allowed to fly in one as soon as she was old enough to see over the side. She has been flying regularly since.
Fiona and the team fly from land at the back of The Golden Cup, in Yoxall, but their trips take them all over the area.
One of the their most popular destinations is the National Memorial Arboretum, which Fiona said was one of her favourite places to fly over.
“It’s pretty cool, especially first thing in the morning. It’s really peaceful and quite deserted as nobody is up and about. It’s always very special,” she added.
There are about 15 people in the balloon team, ranging from teens to those in their 60s, and they try to get out as much as they can. Fiona’s dad Robin is a trained pilot and tries to work the flights so everybody manages to have a go on a regular basis.
As well as organising flights over the Burton and East Staffordshire area, they also head out to ‘meets’ in various parts of the country.
They recently travelled to an event in Bristol, and they were due to take Dugi to a meet at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire this month.
In July, they took the balloon for its first international meet at Metz in France.
The team was one of hundreds which travelled to Chambley air field for Le Reine, which is an annual event.
While there, Honey B entered the record books not once, but twice, as they were part of both the greatest mass balloon ascent, where 408 balloons rose into the air at staggered times and remained in place at the same time, and the great line, which saw 391 balloons rise in line.
Fiona was in the balloon on both occasions when Dugi floated his way into the record books.
Aside from Guinness World Record glory, Metz offered trainee pilot Fiona a chance to test out her flying skills.
The large runway offered a much better opportunity to test taking off and landing after the balloon is fully inflated.
It takes around 20 minutes to fully inflate a balloon and get it ready for take off. The envelope – the material which makes the balloon – is first lain on the ground, with the basket on its side, while a fan pumps cold air into it. Once it is part inflated, hot air is pumped in, which makes it the balloon stand up and get ready for take off.
It is not possible to steer a balloon once it is in the air, but they can be rotated, and the pilot can move them higher or lower to catch different wind directions.
Fiona has been learning the theory behind flying for several years, but she could only begin her training once she hit 17.
“It’s strange that you can take your driving test as soon as you’re 17, but you can’t even learn to fly a balloon until your 17th birthday.
“It’s like driving a car but a lot harder. There’s so much going on,” she said.
Trainee pilots must complete a minimum of 16 hours of flight training before they can qualify. Once started, the course has to be completed within two years.
Fiona’s dad is a qualified pilot, and her brother Stephen is also training to fly. He kept up the hobby when he moved to university in Edinburgh, where he is the president of the hot air balloon society.
Fiona recently completed her A-levels at John Taylor High School, and is due to head to Cardiff University to start a history course next month.
She said she was planning to get a balloon society going in her new home city.
“I can’t have my brother being president and me not doing anything. I’ll find some balloon enthusiasts.”
Flights can only take place when the conditions are absolutely perfect, which means it is very difficult to plan when they can take place.
Honey B only set off either in the morning or in the evening, they cannot fly in the rain, and if there is any hint of wind from the group, they will not be able to go up. They are often seen heading out bleary-eyed to catch the best conditions at dawn, or rushing for a flight at dusk.
When they do set off from the Golden Cup, there is often a crowd gathered to watch the balloon ascend.
Yet, despite the obvious fascination for this majestic form of transport, they have had a lot of bad press over the years.
With high-profile accidents taking place in other parts of the world, many people consider ballooning to be a dangerous and unprotected sport.
Earlier this year, 19 people died when a balloon exploded and crashed over Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Only two people survived the ordeal.
But Fiona said this type of thing was very, very rare, and, in fact, she had never witnessed a bad crash.
She said people often get concerned when they see the basket tip over at the end of a flight, but that there is little to worry about when that happens.
“It’s quite normal because of the way we land,” she added.
Fiona has been lucky enough to indulge her passion for balloons on a regular basis because of her family, but she urged anyone who was interested to have a go at the many commercially run sites in the area.
One company runs out of Shugborough, and there are several others within a short distance where people can pay to have a go at this interesting sport.
“Ballooning is the chance of a lifetime. You are never going to experience anything like it.
“Get involved before you are too old. There are no excuses.
“I’ve grown up with it and I would not have it any different,” she told the Mail.