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Mirror Works: Inflation got my firm off ground; BALLOONING'S BOOMING.

Byline: SHEILA PROPHET

PILOT Nick Langley hasn't always had his head in the clouds. He was a down-to-earth estate agent for 20 years before catching the hot-air ballooning bug.

One day the company Nick worked for hired a balloon and offered staff a free ride. "I did it just for a laugh, but I absolutely loved it," he says.

"After that first flight, my interest grew and my wife Sally and I got together with some other friends to buy our own second-hand balloon."

Nick also set about training to become a pilot, which involves hours of flying experience combined with five written exams.

"The exams are in subjects like navigation, balloon systems - which means knowing how it actually works and when to use the burner and when not to - air law and meteorology, because knowing about the weather is vital when you are flying a balloon."

By 1990, Nick had left the property world behind to become a full-time balloon pilot and since then has flown in exotic locations worldwide.

"For me the thrill of ballooning is the unknown," he says. "You can't steer a balloon, you have to go where the weather takes you, so no two flights are ever the same. And on a beautiful day, it's wonderful to be out on the open, seeing the country spread out below."

Nick's current balloon is in the shape of Churchill Insurance's cartoon dog which will be making flying visits to a range of summer events.

Churchill isn't the first animal Nick has flown. He previously handled Sonic the Hedgehog. "We specialise in creating balloons for companies looking for unusual ways to promote their products," says Nick, 51, of Bristol. "So I'm always looking at things and thinking 'that could be a balloon'. I'd seen Churchill on TV and in the back of cars and thought he was a natural for a balloon with his big round head.

"The finished balloon is perfect and I think people will love him because he is so appealing."

Churchill was created by Shropshire-based Lindstrand, the company formed by Per Lindstrand, best-known for his ballooning exploits with Virgin boss Richard Branson.

"A staggering amount of work was involved in creating it," says Nick. "Balloons are made up of a frame of nylon strips, based on the same principle as a string shopping bag.

"The gaps in between are filled in with parachute nylon, reinforced with fire-proof material near the burner. Making a balloon involves new technology, with computer images digitally transferred to the fabric and old-fashioned hand-sewing."

To find out where to see Churchill this summer, click on to www.churchill.com/fun/ To find out more about ballooning, visit the British Balloon and Airship Club site at www.bbac.org

CAPTION(S):

FLYING HIGH: Nick Langley; HOT DOG: The Churchill balloon set for lift off
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 20, 2004
Words:473
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