He was lambasted as “a boil in the back of Torquay” and someone climbed over a high fence to attack him with a knife the night before his maiden flight. There were claims that its mere shadow would kill rare plants by depriving them of sunlight, and that the mere sight of it rising into the air would cause distracted motorists to swerve and crash.
But the aerial attraction known as the HiFlyer balloon flew over the seafront for four summers before a ferocious storm finally tore it apart, leaving only tattered fabric and a row of bitter silver. Mayors make thousands of decisions during their tenure, but one decision is inevitably remembered. Gordon Oliver will always be the man who wanted an expensive palm tree on a roundabout. And Nick Bye will always be the man the balloon popped for.
It was in early 2007 that the idea was first floated that a giant £450,000 helium balloon would fly over Torquay seafront on the end of a sturdy cable. Intrepid fliers would pay for the privilege of boarding what one reviewer said looked like a “flea basket” under the balloon. Then a huge winch would unwind the steel hawser and the balloon would rise high into the air.
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Operators Lindstrand Technologies presented their plans for Abbey Park at a Torbay Council meeting in April 2007. The company was founded by Swedish engineer, pilot and adventurer Per Lindstrand, who rose to fame in the 1980s and 90 for breaking hot air balloon distance and height records during and after an association with millionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Lindstrand conceded that the HiFlyer would be an “alien and unusual” feature. When ready to fly, the balloon was 36 meters high and reached an operational height of 120 meters.
Permission was granted, but only by a narrow margin. Some advisers remained skeptical, but Alastair Gunning of Lindstrand Technologies told the Herald Express: “It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1780s. I would like visitors who come here to have a smile on their face and enjoy their visit.
In May 2008 the balloon first appeared on the seafront. After a few days of waiting for a weather window, it was refueled with £30,000 helium and left the ground for the first time . Mayor Bye said: “It’s a fantastic show and will give Torbay a huge boost.”
He described it as an “icon of regeneration” and promised it would attract high-spending visitors. This, he said, would put Torquay in the same bracket as places that already had HiFlyers, like Niagara Falls, Philadelphia – and Bournemouth. Test flights began and Mr. Gunning was the first man to fly. From up there he could see Dartmoor clearly and enthused, “It’s fantastic and so quiet. It is exactly what I was hoping for, a fabulous flying experience.
On the ground floor, some onlookers were more difficult to please. “It looks like a pustule,” said unimpressed anti-balloon campaigner Susie Colley.
“I don’t see many spendthrift visitors wanting to spend time in the chip cart, which I assume is the gondola. And the shade it causes will kill all the beautiful sun-loving plants in the rockery.
And when the Herald Express asked people’s thoughts on the newcomer, one letter writer retorted: “You wanted to know what we think, okay. As far as we are concerned, it looks like a boil in the back of Torquay.
Behind the scenes, there had already been drama. Lindstrand Technologies revealed that someone tried to sabotage the balloon before it left the ground.
On the very first night the balloon was inflated, a mysterious intruder dodged security guards, scaled the fence and stabbed her 47 times with a knife. The holes have been repaired and the security reinforced.
Operations manager Tom Spalding said: “It was a determined attempt to sabotage the ball. It was no accident. It was deliberate. Eventually the balloon had passed all of its rigorous security checks, including a visit from the Civil Aviation Authority, and was ready to take passengers at £14 a way for a 15-minute journey.
“We’re getting an incredibly good reaction,” Mr. Gunning said. “People are eager to ride and don’t seem to be put off by the price, which is good.”
Mayor Bye, who admitted he was not dizzy, braved a trip to altitude, although the flight was cut short by what Mr Spalding described as ‘sporty’ winds. The balloon reached 300ft above the windswept waterfront before operators decided to bring the mayor back to earth.
He then said: “It’s a shame the ride didn’t go as far as it could. I will have to pick a nice quiet summer day to see what the ball can do. I’m not a big fan of heights so I think I was very brave to go around and earn a medal.
The flight had been organized by Geoff Coop of the Tormohun Rotary Club, who added: “It was a bit gusty but I wasn’t alarmed, not with 30 years of experience in the RAF.” So hot air balloon rides became normal for visitors to Torquay, who queued up to soar high and see the sights from a different perspective.
The HiFlyer never quite won over its critics, but most people just got used to the sight of the giant sphere in the sky above Abbey Park. Then, in January 2012, the story came to a violent end.
A winter storm brought fierce southeasterly winds that swept across the bay. Roads were flooded, trees crumbled and the ball was torn to shreds. It had been anchored with 40 ties and was designed to withstand 80mph winds, but it was no match for the storm that hit in the early morning hours.
“We are in shock,” Mr Gunning said. “It was totally destroyed and is beyond repair.”
Lindstrand Technologies promised to come back with a new ball, but that was not the case. The HiFlyer never flew over the Torquay seafront again. But while her shadow may not have killed the rare plants, she did cast one on Torbay’s council for many years thereafter.
In July 2013 the council launched legal action to recover £50,000 allegedly owed to taxpayers after the balloon business collapsed. Councilors were told a legal dispute over rent meant none had been paid since 2009.
Cllr Darren Cowell said the whole affair had been a “sorry saga” and the site had been left derelict. Today the park has been restored and is home to spectacular beds of wildflowers. There are more than 40 HiFlyers flying in 18 countries around the world, and the one in Ahmedabad, India carries 1,000 people through the air every day.