The Oxford dangerous sports club was a pioneer in many extreme sports fields in the seventies and eighties. They were the kind of club that got legendary for both its dangerous sports and crazy party achievements: they pioneered bungee jumping, base jumping and organised legendary ski races in St. Moritz. They also took out a boat and sailed out to Rockall – a rock in the middle of the Atlantic – for the sole purpose of holding a cocktail party there. And they pioneered a form of flying using a bunch of colourful balloons. They wanted to create a flying experience more spectacular than hot-air ballooning so they used a whole lot of small balloons instead. This would later get known as cluster ballooning.

Pioneering Cluster Ballooning

It was 1981 when the entrepeneurial and adventurous spirits of the dangerous sports club put their mind and energy to the ballooning business. They would experiment with a form of flying around using a bunch of colourful balloons. This would later get known as cluster ballooning.

Hugo Spowers, one of the experimenters recounts:

“In 1981, on boxing day we tried to fly off Beachy Head using balloons. We got some advertising balloons and the idea was to pump them up with helium so that people could leap around thirty feet in the air and jump off Beachy Head, then draw lots, give someone the extra balloons and sen him off to France with a few Francs in his pocket.

It was extremely cold, as you can imagine at seven in the morning on Beachy Head, and all the balloons, as we blew them up , were thundering around all over the place and hitting each other. The skin was very brittle in the cold weather and they all burst, so gradually it became quite apparent that it was an impractical plan for the morning’s entertainment and we all buggered off. “

This experiment, despite the outcome was the basis for further exploration, through the approved method of trial and error, of what later would be known as Cluster Ballooning.

To take things one step further the idea was raised that two people, each supported by a large number of small helium balloons, could hold an aerial duel. A not so strange idea coming from the mad minds of the dangerous sports club members. Two people would be launched at the same time, a short distance apart, and would try to shoot each other down using bow and arrow with the goal of shooting the other’s balloon down.

Well cool. However such a competitive Dangerous Sport held little appeal to sponsors so the idea was dropped. And a sponsor is what they needed to finance this expensive new ballooning experiment…

Kangaroo Cluster Ballooning

Soon after though, the PR company promoting the Australian beer Castlemaine XXXX in the UK agreed to fund the construction of a helium-inflatable, kangaroo-shaped balloon, which would not be large enough on its own to lift a person, but would be able to do so if it had four additional ten-foot diameter, round helium balloons. The overall impression would be of a kangaroo holding a bunch of balloon in its front paws, and carrying a pilot in its pouch.

The round balloons were built by Colt Balloons, whose manager Per Lindstrand went on to partner Richard Branson of Virgin, in a series of ever more expensive ballooning explorations.

The kangaroo itself was built by Gas and Equipment, another company based, like COld, near Oswestry. Gas and Equipment had a cheery and helpful manager called Craig Marner. Helium is very expensive; each inflation, which would involve the complete loss of the helium, would cost about £1000, so we couldn’t afford the luxury of flight-testing the complete assembly before the real event.

First attempt at Crossing the Channel by Kangaroo balloon

The aim of the kangaroo-balloon project, naturally, was to cross the Channel. That we would invent the sports of Cluster Ballooning was something nobody had though of. That just happened along the way.

e felt very confident that the publicity for the English Channel crossing would reach national newspapers, therefore fully justifying the cost of such a cluster ballooning expedition. In fact, we offered the client a guarantee on this point. If the crossing failed to get national newspaper coverage, the money paid to the Club would be refunded. We normally offered this guarantee when we approached PR companies, and it was not an empty promise. We knew by this time, that Club activities, big or small, were always considered worth a mention by Fleet Street.

The kangaroo stood fifteen-feet high and was made of a material called urethane. This is the lightest material able to hold helium. The ten-foot diameter supporting balloons were each painted with the XXXX logo. The pilot perched on a seat inside the kangaroo’s pouch. The controls were simple: throw out some ballast to go up, and vent some gas, to go down. There was an anchor to throw down on landing.

We set a date to assemble the balloon equipment on Beachy Head and attempt a cluster ballooning crossing. Unfortunately the weather was not particularly good, and with the four ten-foot, round balloons inflated, we decided to hold. Mark Chamberlain tied the balloons to a Land Rover, and we went for breakfast.

Shortly afterwards a panic stricken PR person, Nicky Bright, with the anguished, frightened look of a yuppie who sense that something she is professionally responsible for is about to go dreadfully wrong in public, informed us that one of the balloons had blown loose and flown away. We ran outside, although there was nothing we could do.

”Faaaark!” was all I could think of to say. David Kirke managed something slightly more helpful, but there was no pacifying Nicky Bright.

This unfortunate loss put an end to any hope of flying that day, although by that time the weather situation was so obviously unsuitable that the TV company’s helicopter had already given up and landed. Without TV coverage the flight would have had no promotional impact.

The PR company were seriously unimpressed by this performance, and we began to argue about paying for a replacement balloon. As usual, we had underpriced the job to the point at which there was no money in reserve to cover disasters like this. Castlemaine’s PR company were adamant that they would not pay for a replacement, as the loss was our fault. That may have been true, but their attitude cost them a lot more than the price of one additional small balloon; it cost them the whole promotion. David pulled off a classic dodge; he re-sold the entire project to Fosters Lager, Castlemaine’s main rival in the British market!

While the bad vibes were flying, the kangaroo wasn’t. It was rotting in the cellar at Shoddy (the dangerous sports club home base). Urethane has to be stored dry, and Hopalong – the kangaroo’s new nickname – was damp. When we discovered the damage, it was beyond repair, and Hopalong had to be replaced. Craig Marner decided to use PVC for the next one, a more robust material. He also got the job of making a new set of round balloons with the Fosters brand name on them. Per Lindstrand, still awaiting the final payment for the previous ones, had wisely refused to give us any more credit.

Finally some beer money for A Test Flight

Fosters were delighted with their coup. With the re-sale of the project, there was enough money to pay for an aerial test, and the first flight of the new system took place beside a lake near Bala in Wales, not far from the balloon factory at Oswestry. David Kirke was the pilot. He was launched on what was intended to be a short, shakedown flight at low altitude, giving us experience in assembly and launch of the entire device, and producing pictures and video to use in publicity for the Channel flight. Unfortunately, in a cock-up reminiscent of the Beachy Head fiasco, as he flew over the shore of the lake, David dropped the video camera he was carrying – and as nobody had thought to tie it on, it fell to the water’s edge. With the loss of so much weight, the kangaroo rose sharply to over 3,000 ft. As a technician from the local TV company waded knee-deep into the water to retrieve the fallen camera, an expensive professional model, David and Hopalong drifted higher and further away, until they were out of sight.

David then discovered that his gas release valve was stuck, and he was unable to bring the kangaroo down. The highe he flew, the stronger the winds became, and we realised that if he could not get down quickly, he would end up being carried out over the Irish sea. Finally, after some frantic tugging on the control line, the gas valve came unstuck and he was able to lose altitude. We found him later enjoying some generous hospitality, after landing by a remote house on the coast. David always seemed to have this sort of luck when landing experimental aircraft in random places – it is the luck of the bold.

The First Channel Crossing by Cluster Balloons

In 2010 Jonathan R Trappe, was wrongly hailed as a record-breaker after he crossed the English Channel using 70 coloured helium balloons resembling a scene from the animated film, Up.

Jonathan Trappe Cluster Ballooning across the English channel

Jonathan Trappe Cluster Ballooning across the English channel

The press, and even Trappe himself, were not aware that 20 years before David Kirke, the founder of the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club was actually the first one to cross the channel with cluster balloons. Cluster ballooning across the English Channel is what

In August, the ideal time of year to get press coverage for a light-hearted story, we made a second attempt on the Cluster Ballooning Channel crossing. With the gas release valves fixed, we returned to Beachy Head on a day when the wind promised a good chance of making it to France. We set up the kangaroo and tried to launch it, but although it was clearly lighter than air, it refused to rise, as if held down by a giant invisible hand. We realised that the wind was curling over the back of a hillock, creating a downdraft. We guided David and Hopalong up the hill to a better launch site. The kangaroo drifter through a gorse bush as we pulled it along, but fortunately the tough PVC was not holed. Once out of the downdraft, the kangaroo took off and soon became a speck in the blue.

It climbed to over 10,000 feet, much higher than intended, and we lost sight of it.

Fosters’ PR people were well aware of the misfortunes that had befallen their rivals, and had no wish to share the sad fate of Nicky Bright. For this reason, our agreement with them stated that our payment would only be handed over once the kangaroo actually took off for France. (A successful flight was not a condition of payment, as a traditional British heroic failure would be just as good as story). The moment David was airborne, I took a cheque from the PR company and went straight to the nearest bank.

We then jumped in the VW truck and headed for Dover to retrieve David from France, helping ourselves to the PR company’s hospitality supplies as we lest, to keep us merry en route. Meanwhile, far above us, Captain Andrew Bennett of Air UK, flying from Stanstead to Paris, was reporting the sighting of a kangaroo to a somewhat skeptical air traffic controller.

David Kirke Kangaroo Cluster Ballooning Channel Crossing

Kangaroo Cluster Ballooning across the English Channel

David flew due East gently cluster ballooning his way forward. Any wind direction for East to South would get him to France after travelling about 100 km. The wind was just within this allowed range; any further North and he would have ended up with a much longer journey towards Holland, resulting in a ditching.  (He wore a waterproof dry-suit as a precaution against having to make a water landing, and carried a two-way radio). After two or three hours, he put down near a village called Ferques (would you believe), which is between Calais and Boulogne. A local farmer kindly obliged by hiding the equipment from the police, in his barn, while we were still on the ferry. David called home to Shoddy, so that Miranda could direct us to the hidden  balloons. Then, by making a fast deal with a local reporter, he got a lift to Calais and caught the next boat home.

While David was on the ferry, we found the farmer, and he gave us the equipment and sold us a few bottles of the local vin ordinaire as well. When we got back to England, we found that the successful flight had indeed been well-covered in the national press. Fosters were delighted. I am not quite sure what Nicky Bright thought.

Since Hopalong had been spotted and reported, the Civil Aviation Authority felt it had to prosecute David for flying without a pilot’s license. Who knew you needed a license for cluster ballooning? There was a certain amount of legal argument in court over exactly what kind of license is needed to fly a kangaroo. In the end, it was accepted that it fell into category of experimental aircraft, as defined by the Air Navigation Order. You are supposed to hold a license for a related type of conventional aircraft before testing unconventional ones. Also, whatever the aircraft type, you are always supposed to respect the rules of controlled air lanes. David was fined 100 Pounds. The case brought a fresh round of publicity, even an editorial in The Times:

            ……..Before everybody concludes that the captain of an airliner has taken his passengers to 10,000ft. while in the grip of a massive attack of the DT’s, it must be said that he was perfectly sober and in his right mind; there was an enormous kangaroo in his flight path. What is more, there was a man in its pouch.

            …….the man catching a lift from the passing beast was the Chairman of the Dangerous Sports Club – Mr. David Kirke – was fined 100 Pounds for flying without a pilot’s license. He expressed a due contrition.

            There can be few people who already knew, before this business, that it is an offence in this country to fly a kangaroo without first having been licensed to do so; well, they know better now. But what happened to the pilot of the aircraftwho had to take prompt evasive action because he had seen a kangaroo bowling merrily through the sky at 10,000ft.?

            For not only was he sober; he knew he was sober. Yet if he hasn’t acquired a permanent cardiac murmur, a facial tic and a tendency to wake screaming from his sleep, airborne kangaroos must be much more common over the Channel than most of us had hitherto supposed.

            If he has to take legal action, all those involved should start by blushing at the derisory fine imposed on the man who started the trouble. The law may be an ass, and has frequently made a dog’s breakfast; moreover, some judges want to bring back the cat, and others have frequently put the cart before the horse. But it would be a very grave matter indeed if British justice were now to be dispensed in a kangaroo court.

Pouring beer to keep the Kangaroo balloon afloat

The court case was not concluded until after Hopalong’s final flight, however, which involved another launch from Bala Lake for the benefit of photographers, this time from Australia’s Channel 9. We drove out on a stunningly beautiful morning, with mist just clearing over the lake. Conditions were perfect for scenic photography. We inflated the kangaroo. This time it was my turn as pilot. Like David, I had never before piloted a balloon, either helium or hot air, but the theory seemed straightforward enough.

I was launched in perfectly still air and rose gently, almost straight upwards. After thirty seconds in the air, the kangaroo began to detach itself from me. This was not as worrying as it might sound, as the only essential parts of the flight system were the round balloons and the pilot’s seat. The actual kangaroo was really only decorative. Filled with helium, it was more or less weightless, but did not contribute to the overall lift necessary for the cluster ballooning experiment. Hopalong was simply tied to the pilot, and in fact could be jettisoned if necessary, for example in the event of a water landing. When I realized that Hopalong was slowly falling off me, I caught him and tried to re-make the connections, but once again poor knotting was the curse of the project. (Nonce of use were very good Scouts). In the end I spent most of the flight holding on to him with my left leg.

By alternately releasing gas and pouring away beer I was tying to maintain a low altitude. It took me some time to adjust to the delay between making a control input and getting some response; If I poured some beer, I would have to wait a couple of minutes before there was a noticeable increase in height. If I released some gas, it would take just as long to respond the other way. Since then, I have flown hot-air balloons, and found that this delay is a characteristic of all lighter-than-air craft, although the length of the delay varies a lot. When you are accustomed to the instant responses of land vehicles, though, it can take a while to get used to the more leisurely art of flying an aircraft which is controlled by pouring beer.

After about twenty minutes Hopalong was becoming harder to hold with my leg, and I needed to land, I vented some gas and came down. When I first touched the ground, Hopalong finally fell off and I went back up. I had been expecting this, and let out enough gas to be able to make long hops by just touching gently down. I was enjoying this, but in the end I was caught and held by the others, who were getting hungry and wanted to get the balloons packed up. We were due to have dinner at the Café Royal in London that evening, and we had a long drive ahead. The Australian TV company were hoping to film some childish misbehavior in high class surroundings that night, and we didn’t disappoint them. They were in the process of interviewing Graham over port and cigars when Tommy Leigh-Pemberton was thrown across the table, crashing into Eric’s wheelchair. This drowned the interview with the sound of breaking Waterford crystal and tumbling bottles of Moet. It was exactly what the producer needed to project his image of the English.; after all we think of the Aussies as beer-swilling, sheep molesters,  so they are entitled to their own misapprehensions about us.

After that contribution to international misunderstanding, Hopalong made a few more appearances inflated with air, purely as a static display, but never flew again. Sadly, the cost of helium made it too expensive to fly the kangaroo just for fun and our cluster ballooning verntures came to a standstill. Fosters felt they had got good value for their money and, perhaps wisely, chose to quit while they were ahead.


Sources: the strange adventures of the dangerous sports club – book