7 September 2001


You dont have to keep your feet on the

ground if you need to branch out from

traditional farming.

Tom Montgomery met a farmers

son who stuck his head in the

clouds and created a profitable


EVER since he was a teenager, John Guy has been interested in ballooning. Floating a couple of thousand feet above the scenic Yorkshire Dales on a clear, still day is his idea of heaven.

Lots of other people agree with him. In a normal year he makes around 60 trips carrying up to 10 passengers at a time. Foot-and-mouth has put a stop to flying this year but hes fully booked for take-offs once the crisis is over.

Johns passion for the high life hasnt been at the expense of his regard for the land. Four years ago he was farming with his father, Leslie, on the familys Butterhaw Farm at Gargrave, a 97ha (240-acre) dairy, beef and sheep holding.

"I still love farming and might go back to it sometime in the future, but we had to make decisions," said John. "My father was retiring and the balloon business was successful and time-consuming.

"Farming seemed to be going in the wrong direction and BSE had started up. So we decided to sell all the livestock, rent out the land and I would carry on ballooning based at the farm."

Hot-air ballooning is mainly a summer activity – Easter to October – with occasional flights possible in winter. It is highly susceptible to weather conditions. Gales, rain, fog, low cloud and snow can all prevent lift-off. John wont take passengers if the surface wind speed exceeds eight knots.

&#42 Pilots licence

As with aircraft, the regulatory body is the Civil Aviation Authority. John has to have a commercial pilots licence to fly and an air operators certificate to run his business which he calls Black Sheep Balloons.

Balloons dont come cheap. A big passenger one will cost around £35,000; a small, private affair about £10,000. John owns four – three he uses for his balloon enterprise and one to promote Marie Curie Cancer Care. When his mother developed cancer he was so impressed with what the charity did for her he had its logo put on the envelope.

Once a year, or every 100 flying hours, his balloons go back to the factory to be safety tested. Everything is checked – burners, basket, the envelope – for holes and all wires for faults.

A birds eye view of the Dales, with visibility stretching up to 40 miles on clear days, is considered by Johns clients as a novel way to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. They pay £120 each for the uplifting experience.

"They buy a flight voucher which is valid for a year. When they want to use it they will give me a ring and, weather permitting, well set a time and date to go up," said John.

"I fly from three different locations to allow for the wind direction. You dont want to end up being carried into controlled aircraft space so which one I choose is a last-minute decision. In a good spell I can be flying twice a day, seven days a week.

"A trip lasts about three hours – an hours flying plus take-off and recovery time. Friends and relatives can follow the flight by car."

John says he is now addicted to balloons (hes got them painted on his barn doors) and looks to the sky for his future. Hes operated commercially for 10 years and has flown on the Continent.

While earth-bound, he is building up a livery business on the farm with his wife Gilly.

But once F&M restrictions are lifted he will be up and away. "I like winter flying, when possible, best of all," he said. "A balloon ascent on a crisp, sunny morning over the Dales is a marvellous experience."