Up, up and away with outdoor balloon races

I remember well as a child the thrill of buying a balloon for a balloon race, writing my name and address on the ticket and then seeing the single balloon (or, sometimes, all the balloons together) being released and climb quickly up into the blue sky (it was always blue in those days) – we would watch the balloon, straining our eyes to catch a last glimpse of it as it transitioned from being a tiny dot into complete invisibility.

We even organised a charity balloon race ourselves once – I answered the phone one day a few weeks later to hear a female French voice explain that she had found a balloon bearing our contact details in Brittany where she lived. That balloon had travelled all the way from Wiltshire and must surely have won the race.

But the wind is now changing for racing balloons. It is being appreciated not only what a contribution balloon races are making to the country’s litter count but also – and this is the surprising bit – how many animals suffer (and sometimes die) at the hands of race balloons that have fallen back to earth. My recollection above is echoed by a news item from February this year : a lady in Sussex released a balloon with a message reading: “Happy New Year to whoever finds this when it lands”. Six weeks later she received a letter from Toucy, 200 miles south of Paris, accusing her of littering.

I will digress for a moment to observe that it isn’t just spent race balloons that litter the countryside. On my litter rambles over the last few years I have retrieved numerous foil helium balloons – you know, the type that we give to our friends for their birthdays and anniversaries or the cartoon character balloons that we buy from the bloke holding onto a whole cloud of them in the market (is there ever the chance that he might take off ?). And in many ways these foil balloons are a worse pollutant to the countryside – they are larger and much less biodegradable than their commonplace latex cousins. Can we please all try to hold onto, tie down properly or otherwise secure these foil balloons better in future ?

Anyway, back to the main point which is that there is now a much more environmentally-friendly (and, to my mind, a much more fun) way to run a balloon race. In July, the RAF Association (RAFA) ran an indoor balloon race at RAF Cosford. The methodology was simple. Instead of filling their 3,000 balloons with helium (an exercise of doubtful environmental credentials in itself), they blew the balloons up with air, numbered them and deposited them all at one end of the sports hall. At the given signal, a team of eager tennis-racquet-wielding balloon-beaters set about the balloons, herding them en masse down the length of the sports hall and into a 5-a-side football goal at the far end. The first balloons into the goal were the winners.

The photographs of this novel balloon race (which you can see in this website’s photo gallery and also on the RAFA website – click here) clearly show the immense fun that this event generated – and it raised £30,000 for RAFA.

I should add that the feeling against traditional outdoor balloon races is catching on in the commercial world too – to date Marks and Spencer and Barclays Bank, to name but two large corporations, have pledged not to promote traditional balloon races any more.

If the word spreads, then not only will we reduce a significant source of litter in the UK but we will also avoid many of the injuries and painful deaths that animals suffer at the hand of spent balloons. I hope that you will join me in concluding that, far from killing any joy, this will all be worth it and we may even feel that our joy is heightened by the riot of fun provided by an indoor balloon race.

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