www.Nightskyhunter.com www.Nightskyhunter.com

Drone View Of Hot Air Balloons Over Maghera - May 28th & 29th 2018

We are currently enjoying a beautiful spell of warm settled weather, every day is sunny and very warm with barely a breath of wind, this is pure magic. There are certain things I hunt for each Spring and Summer, NLCs, thunderstorms, sunsets, however I also keep an eye out for hot air balloons, it seems on calm days with good thermals they can be spotted late in the evening however unless one is plugged into that social pipeline one never knows for sure if they will be in the air, if at all, so I always scan the skies in hope of spotting one or more of these majestic sights each fine Summer evening. The warm spell was wonderful and the sky quiet and peaceful, however on May 28th for some reason my instincts told me to be extra vigilant, so I made a brew then walked out the back door and looked to the sky, there to the E was a hot air balloon!, actually there were three and I suspected more, my drone was fully charged as always and I immediately got excited by the prospect of an aerial balloon scene, I had done it once before back on June 8th 2016 (see report) when a formation rose from Drumlamph woodland outside Maghera, I obtained several cinematic sequences of drone footage which was quite a thrill to capture, since then I've always been on the alert for another chance and this evening it was happening again.

I didn't jump haphazrdly into a flight, I watched the movement of the balloons, their speed, altitude, patterns of movement, how tightly clustered they were, I also recalled the models as I check these every day for wind speed data, this evening there would be a gentle 5mph Ely breeze, that meant the balloons I was seeing where slowly drifting my way and coming closer, I decided that a drone flight was 100% doable. I packed my gear in the car and invited my Mum out for the experience, of course our dog Rhua had to come along too.

I stopped the car for a quick ground shot with the DSLR and 100-400mm lens, I couldn't believe this Owl, it looked spectacular, I really wanted to get this with the drone so the camera went back in the bag and we hit the road once more. We drove out the Crewe road to give chase, got ahead and found a lay by near a gate on a back road with just enough room to get the car in. Luckily there was a big field beside me and the gate was open so I walked in and prepared the Phantom 3 Advanced. Luckily there was plenty of space between each balloon, perhaps 1-2km, I avoided the cluster as I could see eight in total and decided to target the isolated balloons and as luck would have it the Owl was one of them. Take off, quick check of battery cell status, and that all controls were working, good signal, then a visual check that no other aircraft where in the area (it isn't a no fly zone) then I ascended and flew out the Owl.

I reached my maximum ceiling of 120m according to CAA drone regulations and drifted sideways tracking the balloon which dipped and climbed in height gently as the Ely breeze pushed it from R to L. What a great experience, sun shining, warm, humid, out in a t-shirt in a freshly cut field filming a hot air balloon with a drone, I recalled thinking how bizarre this was, a huge Owl face floating over the beautiful countryside outside Maghera where I grew up. Years ago when I got a lend of my first 1 mp digital camera, Conor McDonald and I used to chase after these hot air balloons along this very same country road, only back then we used bicycles, funny how things have changed, the technology has become epic however the essence of the chase, nature, and the thrill of capturing something on camera has never waned, it was a good feeling.

Another balloon came within range, I came back, changed to a fresh battery, did my tech and visual checks, then took off once more back to 120m altitude. The field I was standing in was stifling, I mean it was seriously warm and close, I was sweating like mad and it was stinging my eyes. This balloon looked gorgeous with it's red canopy contrasting against a clean blue sky before sunset. Drone regulations in the UK state I must keep a distance of 50m from any object or person not under my control, so here I played it very safe, I was well beyond 50m here, however close enough to see detail and be safe at the same time. I burned through three batteries, had visual line of sight at all times, my Mum was acting as spotter too, and by the time I had landed I had acquired several nice video sequences, it was a great evening, the sun set behind the hills, it was shocking how warm and humid it still was at 21.30, I really do love this time of year.

When myself and others posted images of the balloons on social media word soon got about and information came my way. It turned out that this was the 20th anniversary of the Sperrins balloon festival and they planned on being out most evenings, and mornings, they were spotted at 06.00 for two mornings in a row. With such stunning weather forecast yet again for the following day I decided to be on high alert once more, I really wanted more drone footage. On the 29th we found out through several sources that they were setting up once more outside Draperstown and would be taking to the air that evening, the prevailing breeze was a NEly so they would more or less cross over the same path as the previous day. Photographer Nigel Mc Farland drove from Limavady to document the event so we teamed up and headed out the road to watch the skies, we didn't know what time they would appear so we pulled into the lay by at the Moyola Bridge outside Tobermore which offered us a great view of the sky.

Amazingly the lay by was soon full of cars, all parked with bonnets facing out, this was odd looking, then cars would stop and ask us if the balloons would be out, what time and where to look, it seemed that everyone thought we knew the answers or were associated with the flight, it was funny as we only had a vague idea of what might happen, however there were cars everywhere, the word had got out on social media, everyone was watching for the balloons, I honestly have never seen anything like it before here, it was actually fantastic, a great sense of anticipation and excitement and closer sense of community, it was such a fabulous sight to see people out in nature watching the skies instead of television. We decided to change location, Conor rang and we all decided to meet up on the Crewe Road once more, so we drove there and arrived at the same location as the previous day, however the farmers were out cutting the fields, saw what we were up to, and let us drive into their fields so we could keep off the road, they were so nice and friendly.

The balloons rose and drifted closer, suddenly there course had changed and they were moving more to the S of our position, so we all jumped in the cars and chased S after them, we ended up on a quiet country road outside Maghera and got out for shots. We where treated to one balloon after another on and off for an hour, Nigel and Conor were shooting with DSLR and long lenses, at times the baskets under the balloons looked to pass only meters above the road, there was even a base jumper who jumped out of the basket who parachuted to the ground which was awesome. However my treat was one of the last balloons which passed over our heads into the W at golden hour, drone slowly pacing the balloon from upwind with its dark form against the sunset sky and the backdrop of the Sperrin mountains, it was the perfect end to a perfect Summer's evening.

Drone footage from May 28th, drone within visual line of sight, easy to see in the sunshine, spotter used and all drone regulations satisfied.

Sunset balloon aerial sequence from May 29th, altitude 120m, 400m range, visual line of sight, two spotters on ground. This ended up a great two days of balloon chasing complimented by fabulous weather. Hope you enjoy the footage, best watched at 1080p with window fully extended, thanks for watching.


Martin McKenna

Sky Events Now

Observing Sessions

Storm Chasing