The History of Cameron Balloons Ltd. (Bristol)
Adapted from an article in Aerostat, the magazine of the British Balloon and Airship Club.
Displayed here through the kind courtesy of the author,
Mr. Richard Cardy, to whom I am most grateful. -D.W.
Special thanks to Hannah Cameron
Having tackled several subjects in recent years on the theme of “the history of,” Richard Cardy approached Hannah Cameron at Cameron Balloons in January 2004.
On a very wet, dull, and damp Monday Morning in January, I made my way up the A36 to the city of Bristol for a meeting with Hannah Cameron at the factory in the city’s area of Bedminster.
Our meeting began with an in-depth tour of the factory, covering also the company’s involvement with medical instrumentation.
Trying not to stray too much from the Ballooning side of this article, it would not be fair to ignore this factor of Cameron’s production. Camerons have been involved in the medical field for a number of years now and the most recent addition this field is the “Hyperslide” - a product used since 1996 in the safe and efficient movement of patients, that takes much of the effort out of lifting. Hyperslides are manufactured from “Hyperlast” balloon fabric, coated on both sides with slippery silicone elastomer, which is resistant to mould and mildew. The Cameron medical division now also manufactures more than 2500 "lapsacs" - products for keyhole surgery - every month. Jim Howard, who manages this department as well as marketing lapsacs at medical conferences, says, "the growth of this part of the business is very exciting. We are even hoping to develop the products further to make them easier to use and suitable for more and more operations." The medical products division has recently opened additional premises in Clevedon, near Bristol, to improve product throughput further.
Our tour continued on to the manufacturing area of the actual balloon factory, visiting every aspect of the production of a brand new Cameron hot-air balloon. My tour looked at both the stitching and artwork departments before watching one of the state of the art computerised cutting machines going through its paces. The tour as a whole took around about an hour.
I have made numerous visits to the factory in Bedminster since 1992 and there are obvious signs that, even in that short space of time, significant progress is being made in the production of what is considered by some a more “primitive” type of aircraft.
But how did it all start? And who was behind it?
Don Cameron, in full Donald Allan Cameron, was born in Glasgow in 1939, and attended Allan Glen’s school in the same city. He furthered his education at Glasgow University by reading Aeronautical Engineering, graduating in 1961. Along with this, two years later he also obtained a master’s degree at university in America. Soon after, he joined the Bristol Aeroplane Company.
With his liking of aviation and all things connected with it, he and a few friends, members of the Bristol Gliding Club, formed a group who would eventually build the first modern hot-air balloon in Western Europe, called the “Bristol Belle.” Registered G-AVTL, it was first flown from Weston-on-the-Green, Oxfordshire, on 9th July 1967. The balloon also flew from the deck of the Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to Malta in November of 1970, and made a "short" flight at the 1992 Bristol Fiesta for the historic reunion of Tom Sage, Terry Adams and Don Cameron.
Now that Don had found his new “hobby” it was soon turned into a commercial concern. It was in 1968, two years after the birth of the BBAC, that Don, together with Leslie Goldsmith, founded Omega Balloons. Omega constructed 10 Balloons before the company split into today’s Cameron Balloons and Western Balloons in 1970. In 1970, when Cameron Balloons became a limited company, only twenty people in Britain held private pilots' licences for balloons.
The Cameron factory started in the basement of 1 Cotham Park, Bristol, where a total of 29 balloons were manufactured. Today, Cameron Balloons Ltd is the world's largest manufacturer of modern day hot-air balloons, making Bristol the undisputed ballooning capital of the world. (The Early Years of Sport Ballooning, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, might, in fact, presume amiably to dispute this. -D.W.) ;^) Don Cameron, of course, as everyone who knows him and knows ballooning will recognise, holds a wealth of experience as a pilot, and has received the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals of the British Royal Aero club for his ballooning achievements. He has travelled to the White House in Washington, D.C. where the Vice President awarded him with the Harmon Trophy, which in previous years has been awarded to Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong.
Don Cameron's other achievements include crossing the Alps and the Sahara, and in 1990 he made the first balloon flight between the UK and what was then the USSR. An attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean was forced down by poor weather in 1978. The feat was more successful when, in 1992, in a balloon of his own design, Cameron flew from Bangor, Maine to Portugal, winning second place in the first ever transatlantic balloon race.
Cameron Balloons are also responsible for the world’s first hot-air airship, as well as the world’s smallest human-carrying helium-filled craft, commissioned by Richard Van Der Meer in 1982. This craft, based largely on the above-mentioned hot-air airships, used an envelope made of nylon fabric coated on the outside with aluminised polyurethane and laminated to a tight film on the inner surface. The helium space was a single ballonet pressurised by a ram intake beneath the nose. The tail fins were air-inflated, drawing their pressure from a duct in the propeller slipstream. The car was fitted with three wheels on the under side and fitted out as a two-seater, using a single engine driving twin ducted fans with toothed belts.
As well as the traditional teardrop-shaped balloons, Don’s company are also ‘dab hands’ at creating some stunning special shapes. To mention only a few will be difficult: an Orient express train; a bust of Beethoen; shoes; hats; phones; bottles; cans - several animals, too, have been given the treatment - a parrot; a dog; bears & rabbits as well as Disney favourites Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The early design of special shapes was by Don himself with just a drawing board and a slide rule, before moving on to computer design software (written by Cameron himself), which, although modified, is still used today. All of Camerons' craft are fully recognised and certified as aircraft, and, although built entirely of fabric, there is not one solid device to assist in keeping the shape.
In 1971 Cameron Balloons, already the largest manufacturer outside the United States (today the largest in the world), built "Golden Eagle" to fly across the Sahara to shoot a film for Mr. Jack Le-Vien. The crossing from Ghardaia to Agadez was to take approximately five weeks,and cover a total of 2,300 miles. The main aim was to fly over Tassili N'Ajjer, a 7,000-foot-high plateau, and to explore the Tenere Desert region. Don Cameron was to fly "Golden Eagle" with Felix Pole & Julian Nott flying "Daffodil," the other balloon manufactured by Cameron Balloons for this trip. Harrods donated all the food for the entire team of 15 people necessary to retrieve, film and document the adventure. Further publicity for the trip was achieved by inflating the two balloons outside County Hall, in sight of the Houses of Parliament, London, just before the explorers departed. Whilst in the desert the pilots made an altitude record attempt, reaching 19,458 ft. Unfortunately they were nearing the end of their fuel supply and had to make a cold descent of 1,200 ft/min, rounding out and landing safely at the last moment. Just over four weeks and 3,000 miles later the adventurers returned home without technically having crossed the desert, but "nobody seemed to mind." On the 21st of August, 1972 (Hannah’s second birthday!), Don Cameron flew across the Alps with Mark Yary, setting a new World record in the famous 0-140 Cu-Nim, then the largest balloon ever built.
During that same year, the factory moved into St. Matthew’s Church Hall in Cotham, and by 1975 twelve people were on the full-time payroll. This group felt a need to improve and constantly develop ideas, a philosophy the company still holds dear today. New modifications had come into being to make ballooning safer and more comfortable. It was said that there was about a mile of seams in each envelope. In 1975, like today, the seams were half-inch double folds, each free edge contained within the fold of another panel. By the second half of 1976, rip-locks were being fitted as standard & retrofitted to all existing balloons to prevent the velcro deflation panel opening during turbulent flights. These consisted of three specially shaped pull-out hooks around the periphery of the panel, each lock secured with a thread. This was designed to prevent any repetition of a fatal accident that happened to Mike Adams and Mike Sparks when they were flying in a balloon - not a Cameron - whose velcro rip panel opened without warning in unstable conditions. This accident affected the thoughts and feelings of many people within the close ballooning community.
Flexi-rigid uprights, nylon poles that supported the burner above the basket, were offered as an extra that could be retrofitted to any Cameron basket. This was achieved by fitting four metal tubes into the corners of the basket, held in place by slim leather straps. The poles were then slid into the tubes and the burner frame attached. The original poles were approximately twice the length of modern poles because they reached from the bottom of the basket up to the height of the burner. The top half of each pole was covered in leather with an eye-bolt to attach it to the burner frame. This idea has been further modified to become the patented burner support system Camerons use today. Nearly all balloonists adopted this system, except former Cameron Director, Mr Ian Kerr, who, despite being one of the developers of flexi-rigid supports, to this day still eschews these new (already in use for 18 years!) poles. Among the other improvements constantly being introduced were thinner load tapes to reduce weight but not strength, and better fabrics. Fabric protection also changed, the original hard Polyurethane (PU) coating being replaced by a softer PU coating in about 1980. More recently, Teflon coatings, anti fade coatings and biocides have been introduced to ensure Cameron fabric is more effective, looks better and stays stronger for longer.
In 1974 Cameron built an enormous A-500 balloon for Heineken. The largest operational balloon in the world, with its double-decker basket and 26-person capacity, it set many world records. The Giant, as it was soon named, was 160 ft high, 440 ft around the equator and its construction required 5,000 square yards of fabric. Let’s not forget, either, the other record-breaking double-decker built by Cameron, in 1987: the gigantic N-850 “Nashua” balloon that made an historic 45-passenger flight from the Fiesta that same year. The balloon was “powered” by six Mk 4 burners and stood at 35 metres tall. Caught in a mysterious explosion in a lay-by off the M4 on March 15th 1988, "Nashua" was destroyed. No one was hurt, and the loss was reportedly valued at £54,000.
The VIVA was introduced during 1976, available in six colour schemes only. Despite this restriction, twenty were sold, in five different countries, during its debut year.
Now, of course, Cameron make a patented parachute valve, designed & first produced in 1974. In 1991, the "swift, safe & simple LOCK TOP deflation system" was designed & put into production, enabling a balloon to have an almost instant deflation with an unobstructed path for the hot air to exit. Soon, 90% of deflation systems were of the parachute type, which has remained the most popular system since 1980, when it was patented. The Aristocrat basket was introduced with the overhead frame, suede trim & pole covers which contained the fuel lines. The basket had rounded corners, a quick-assembly karabiner system and attachment blocks on the burner frame. Fully gimbaled burners were also now available for all double burners.
Special shapes were pioneered by Cameron Balloons. The first was Golli III, a 31,000 cubic foot replica of the Robertson jam mascot (still flying today) & the Levi's jeans special shape, with a waist of 1160 inches & an inside leg of 1198 inches, which had its first flight on 13 November, 1976. The Levi’s balloon was originally intended to fly with two baskets, one under each leg, as this seemed the only way of ensuring a symmetrical pair of jeans. Experiments showed that this was not necessary, however, so one leg was closed off at the base and contained only cold air in flight.
The company moved to the Bedminster location in 1983, and in so doing, created four times the floor space of the old Cotham factory. It was in April 1989 that Cameron Balloons Ltd was awarded the prestigious Queen's Award for Export. The presentation was made at the factory in Bristol by the Queen's representative, Sir John Willis, the Lord Lieutenant of Avon and Somerset. The occasion was attended by 100 of the company’s workforce, who toasted the success with - what else - champagne.
In 1991 Cameron Balloons Ltd came of age, celebrating 21 years of business, by which time they had built over 3,000 balloons. A special logo was commissioned to commemorate the occasion.
A competition was also run to win a brand new ready-to-fly Viva 90, registered G-IWON. Contestants had to guess how many hours and minutes the balloon would log by the end of 1991. Also in that same year, Camerons constructed what was to become one of the most popular shapes ever. Complete with red jersey, yellow checked trousers and scarf, Rupert Bear was unveiled at the Leeds Castle meet that June. Rupert was commissioned by the Daily Express newspaper and operated by Flying Pictures until 1996. He has since retired and now lives in Sussex with the Balloon Preservation Group (BPG).
With the demise of Rupert in 1996, Camerons set out in 1997 to carry on with a character that was probably even more popular. At 145ft tall, and complete with liquorice walking stick, the first of two Bertie Bassett shapes rolled out of Cameron’s factory. The second joined Pete Dalby’s stable in 2001, and was an exact clone of the first, the sole exception being the registration.
We have already covered a little on shapes earlier on. However, the early-to-mid nineties saw a surge in the popularity of “character shapes,” such as the Cadbury’s Caramel Bunny, G-BUNI, Sonic the Hedgehog, G-SEGA, and the Radio One Dude, G-OIFM. By the latter part of that decade character shapes became intricately detailed, with the emergence of Douglas the Lurpak Man and the Action Man parachutist.
During 1996, the first of three “Breitling Orbiters” was completed for the then-ongoing Round the World Challenge. The first Breitling balloon was a Roziere of 450,000 cu ft., whilst solo challenger Steve Fossett ordered a smaller R210 version. Twelve months on and with no circumnavigation successes the previous year, Fossett was up for it again, this time in a larger double-skin Cameron Roziere of 270 cu ft. Also, a larger Breitling Cameron-built model was due to fly out from the well-known Swiss Ballooning Village of Chateau d’Oex.
Camerons were a popular choice for round the world challenge balloons, with two other lesser-known teams joining in: Kevin Uliassi, of Phoenix, Arizona, and the other team made up of Richard Abruzzo and Dick Rutan. Both chose Cameron R-420s. Despite failure to complete the challenge once again by any team, Orbiter 2 set the new absolute world endurance record of 9 days, 17 hours and 55 minutes, an improvement of over 50% on the record set by Steve Fossett the previous year.
Whilst trying not to dwell too much on the round-the-world challenge, 1998-99 saw four Cameron Rozieres built. Once more, Breitling's challenger was of bigger proportions, with a 650,000 cu ft. capacity. The Cable and wireless craft was bigger still at 1,077,000 cu ft. with two more at 420 and 550 respectively. We all well know the eventual outcome that, on the 20th day of March 1999, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones placed themselves in the history books by crossing the finish line in Mauritania, North Africa. So it was a Cameron that claimed the first-ever circumnavigation of the world by balloon, and in doing so, made the longest unrefuelled flight of any aircraft in aviation history, both in terms of distance (40,813Km) and duration (19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes).
The following month on April 1st (no joke), Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh paid a visit to the Bedminster factory to meet Brian and Bertrand, along with many others who had been involved with the historic achievement. After five failed attempts, it was in 2002 that a Cameron-built Roziere circumnavigated the globe again, this time a solo attempt by American Steve Fossett. Steve took just 324 hours and 10 minutes, breaking the record set by Brian and Bertrand in 1999.
Make a note in your diaries to look out for a programme called Monster Garage on the UK Channel 4 network during early June (2004). Cameron Balloons was a main contributor to a fantastic television stunt, this time flying a working Range Rover suspended beneath a Cameron envelope (kindly provided by passenger balloon operator PSH Skypower). The Cameron engineers responsible for modifying the Range Rover were Steve Dunk and Rob Buckley. "The whole vehicle had to be totally stripped down to save as much weight as possible." Says Steve. "It was a great project to work on. After converting the vehicle we spent two weeks filming and two days working on the actual film stunt site". Pilot Simon Askey is usually found flying special-shaped balloons rather a 4X4 with no roof. He explained, "it was a genuine challenge as no one was really sure if the balloon and car could be made to work together successfully." Did they succeed? Watch the programme, or check for an update in June’s Aerostat!
Camerons continue to go from strength to strength, and it is at this point I wish to thank Hannah for all her help with this article.