Party time for group as it lands a balloon

Ulster Aviation Society Chairman Ray Burrows takes delivery of a hot-air balloon from businessman Robin Mercer of Hillmount Garden Centre.

Ulster Aviation Society Chairman Ray Burrows takes delivery of a hot-air balloon from businessman Robin Mercer of Hillmount Garden Centre.

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The sky’s typically the limit for aircraft enthusiasts, except when there’s a 40ft ceiling hindering plans to show off a 100ft hot-air balloon.

That said, it’s a welcome problem for volunteers at the Lisburn-based Ulster Aviation Society, who until very recently didn’t actually have a hot-air balloon with which to adorn their Halftown Road hangar.

That changed when businessman Robin Mercer, of Hillmount Garden Centre, floated the idea of donating to the society a wicker basket complete with 100ft envelope.

The idea took off, even if the £3,000 decommissioned balloon can’t, and UAS is now pondering how best to exhibit the gift in its growing aviation museum.

“Being presented with the balloon by Hillmount is fantastic,” said UAS chairman Ray Burrows, “as we can now show children what it’s like to get airborne for those very first flights.

“The make-up of the basket, the size of the envelope and the very basic concept of hot air taking you upwards will be so much easier explained with an actual balloon.

“Hot-air balloons were the whole start of aviation, so, while it’s still wrapped up in its packaging for now, we mean to utilise it.

“The basket is beautifully made and we’re sure it will be of interest to the kids.”

While Ray concedes a fully functional balloon “would have been nice”, it would have presented its own challenges too.

“I’m told that the last time this particular balloon was inflated, at Stormont, the Landrover they hitched it to started to move, so they had to hitch it to three Landrovers,” he said.

Though only too well aware of the balloon’s place in aviation history, the UAS had not been actively seeking one.

“We’re a voluntary charity,” said Ray, “so the money’s not available to buy all the things we would love to buy.

“We have to be very careful how we spend and this year, rather than buy aircraft, we’ve been buying things to do with display, to allow us to bring our displays up to a professional museum standard.”

The man who donated the balloon, Robin Mercer, who operates garden centres in Belfast and Bangor, was inspired to do so after accepting a personal invitation to attend this year’s official Philippine International Hot Balloon Fiesta. “When I saw the joy that our balloon brought to so many thousands of children in the Philippines,” he said, “I decided the best way to encourage future generations to enjoy my love of hot-air ballooning in Northern Ireland would be to donate my balloon to the society so they can learn practically how exciting this hobby can be. Experiencing a real hot-air balloon is unique.”