Up, Up & Away
by Ruth Lawrence
Taking on what seems to be a colossal challenge, Mike Scholes and Deborah Day are planning a record breaking Atlantic balloon flight in aid of Blind Veterans UK. Ruth Lawrence paid this inspirational couple a visit to find out more.
If you’ve crossed the Atlantic, chances are you’ve taken off, eaten lunch and had a snooze in the air before landing a few hours later, ready to face the day ahead.
Imagine then, taking up to ten days, piloting your own craft, being open to the elements 24/7 and confined, with another person in a basket with smaller dimensions than a double bed. This will be the challenge facing Deborah Day and Mike Scholes from Lindfield, when they attempt their world record breaking Atlantic balloon crossing while promoting Blind Veterans UK this summer.
Mike lost 85% of his sight in 2007 due to a rare genetic condition; before this he was a pilot in the Royal Navy and flew gliders before taking up ballooning. He gained his ballooning Commercial Pilots Licence in 1993 and nine years later won the Great British Long Jump (GBLJ) by flying from Caernarfon to Wattisham, a distance of 231 miles. He was running a successful hot air balloon business when his sight began to fail but a year later ran his first marathon, determined not to diminish his love of adventure and challenge.
In 2006 he piloted a balloon up to 32,000 feet using a builders bag instead of a basket to save weight, joining just six other pilots who have flown over 31,000 feet and the same year set five records for British hot air balloon duration flights. He was awarded the Royal Aero Club Bronze Medal by HRH Duke of York a year later and again won the GBLJ record using a home built basket. Not one to take things easy, Mike trekked across the Arctic to the geographic North Pole in 2010 to raise funds for Blind Veterans UK, who provide blind and partially sighted ex-service men and women with rehabilitation, emotional support, training and practical advice.
Mike’s partner, Deborah Day is equally committed to adventure; she was an elite marathon runner and successful triathlete, competing in 29 races and then gained her pilot’s licence in 2013. The same year, she took part in the Queen’s Cup Air Race and won the Counties Challenge Trophy and the year after won the Addams Sparks Trophy for balloon pilot of the year. She won the GBLJ that year with a distance of 212 miles and in 2016, her GBLJ entry took her along the south coast from Eastbourne to near Crediton in Devon in an ambitious flight that took her south of Brighton and over Selsey Bill. She gained her Commercial Pilot Licence in 2017 and the same year won the GBLJ flying from Selkirk, Scotland to Woburn in Bedfordshire, a distance of 264 miles.
Deborah and Mike’s long history of endurance training and achievement on ground and air will stand them in good stead for the ambitious challenge they face this summer. They will have to train for gas ballooning, distance running, swimming, altitude and low temperature acclimatisation and ocean survival, where they will acclimatise against cold water shock in case they have to land in the sea. Although their basket will have a cover to keep them dry, temperatures could plummet at night so they are going to test sleeping in the basket in the Alps for three days to acclimatise themselves to cold.
Strangely, one of the most challenging aspects of the flight will be to remain still in such a con ned space for such a length of time; with an approximate average speed of 30 knots per hour, the flight could take anything up to ten days depending on wind speed. The balloon is a Roziere, which will be filled with 85% helium and 15% warm air; it can take a couple of hours to fully in ate to its 85ft height.
Depending on weather, the couple will y at altitudes between 500 and 16,000 feet. Although they won’t be utilising the jet stream during their flight, it does drag a lower air stream underneath and it’s a steady westerly that they will need to take them across the Atlantic. They are intending to take off from Quebec City in Canada and if the wind direction is favourable, they may head to Eastern Europe but they don’t know where they’ll land.
Ballooning is entirely dependent on the wind direction; the only control is over altitude and this is what makes it such an interesting way to y. With no light pollution over the Atlantic, the night skies should make an extraordinary spectacle, with shooting stars aplenty; Debbie will be using a drone and lightweight adventure camera to capture footage of the flight as they travel. Mike and Deborah will be attempting several records during the flight; the ladies pilot duration record will be broken after 75 hours and Deborah aims to capture the ladies distance record as well. She will be the first lady to captain such a flight and Mike will be the first registered blind person to crew on a flight like this. If they reach an altitude of 23,000 feet, they will also achieve the altitude record for that size of balloon.
There is little chance of carrying out trials for this flight; the helium alone will cost £18,000 and they have to ship or air freight the balloon over to Canada for the launch. They are seeking sponsors for this and future flights, all to help Blind Veterans UK and businesses will benefit from a huge amount of publicity from the flight and opportunities including signed individual photos from Mike and Deborah. People will be able to track the couple’s progress on the website they will be setting up and presently all info is on their Facebook page and via Twitter. Because they don’t know where they’ll be landing, they are dependent on people to retrieve them and the balloon on the ground and already have friends in Ireland and the UK to help if they land there or on the mainland.
Mike and Deborah will be taking six 80L tanks of helium and the equivalent weight in sandbags so they can jettison environmentally friendly sand when each tank empties instead of the polluting tanks. They will drop nothing that isn’t biodegradable and solar panels will be used to power and charge equipment. From sunrise to mid afternoon the solar effect will be enough to keep the helium at the right temperature and they aim to travel mainly around 3 to 5,000ft altitude. During the flight, Deborah will aim to sleep after sunrise when Mike will take over, monitoring the flight with a specially designed talking computer. Although they will be sleeping in turn on a lightweight aluminium bunk, the 6x4ft willow basket will be cramped when accommodating not only them but rations, clothing and water for the trip. Add to that a life raft, distress beacons and flares and there will be little room to move once they are in the air.
It’s rare to meet a couple who have achieved so much as individuals before joining forces to take on such an immense challenge and meeting them was a humbling experience. Both possess an unquenchable passion for challenge and they make an unbeatable team both on the ground and in the air.
For Further Information
Blind Veterans: www.blindveterans.org.uk