01403 878 026
01903 892 899

Kevin Stass: A Life in Ballooning

Kevin Stass

Published 1st June 2019

I was a leap year baby, born on 29 February 1956.

My father worked at Barclays, commuting to London for 40 years from the New Town of Crawley. I went to Hazelwick School and was mad on football. I am still a season ticket holder at Chelsea FC. 

I didn't have a career plan, but my dad had done well in banking, so I took Business Studies at Crawley College. I didn’t even complete my exams though. I travelled around America on a Greyhound bus instead! 

The Crawley Observer had an advert for a Flight Documentation Assistant at Dan-Air. My brother was an apprentice at British Caledonian and could get flight tickets for next to nothing, which sounded great! So, I went for it. One of the people interviewing me was also born on 29 February, which helped me land the job.

On my first day, I stepped inside the terminal building at Gatwick, smelt the Kerosene and felt at home. I then spent 40 years in aviation. 

A consortium of Dan-Air pilots had bought a share of a hot air balloon, with the company paying the other half. It was  used to promote Dan-Air at fetes and festivals. I became involved and soon built up enough hours to gain a pilot’s licence.

The sensation of balloon flight is incredible. Once you’re in the air, you forget all the hassle of setting up. It requires a great deal of effort and preparation, as you need someone chasing you around the countryside to pick you up afterwards. Before mobile phones, it could take a while, so pilots would usually make a point of landing near a pub! 

I eventually became Route Planning Manager at Dan-Air. It was a huge learning curve, as the company had been built with people who served in the RAF during the war, with a younger team growing around them. 

In 1979, I took my first solo flight. A few months later, we flew at the first Bristol Balloon Fiesta, which has become a major event. We also travelled to Germany several times, tethering the balloon outside The Reichstag. The Berliner Morgenpost published a photo of the balloon super-imposed over Berlin, which caused consternation as the guards assumed we planned to fly it. 

We also went to Majorca, but I never flew outside the UK. It’s risky when you’re not used to the conditions and I didn’t want to embarrass Dan-Air. But that’s exactly what happened in 1984.

I had taken off from Wisborough Green, flying along the A29 over Billingshurst and Slinfold, towards the junction with the A281. We were approaching Gatwick, so I looked for a place to land. The balloon veered left towards a hedge, so I aimed for the next field instead. It was a shallower descent and we hit the ground hard. The pilot light caught one grain of barley and the whole lot went up in flames.

There were two others in the basket. I was training one to fly the balloon, whilst the other was the wife of Dan-Air's Chief Pilot. I grabbed them both and we ran across the field as the propane cylinders exploded, destroying the balloon and four acres of crops. One of the first to arrive on the scene was an Evening Argus photographer! 

By 1992, Dan-Air was struggling and British Airways stepped in. Some people were kept on, but I wasn’t. I spent several months with a team trying to establish an airline called First European, but we couldn’t get financing. So, I joined Virgin Atlantic as Route Planning Officer, gradually working back up to a Manager’s position. Then the balloon madness started. 

Richard Branson was flying hot air balloons and the scale and ambition of the projects grew. Having flown across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with Swedish pilot Per Lindstrand, they wanted to be the first people to fly around the world. But flying over countries is complicated, as it requires permits. That happened to be my day job.
Richard asked to meet me for a 30-minute chat. That meeting would end with me spending ten years on ballooning projects.

I was partly responsible for obtaining overnight flight permits for the Virgin Global Challenger (later ICO Global), working in mission control in Crawley. Richard, Per and Alex Ritchie took off from Marrakech for their first attempt in 1997. 

A technical issue hit them and the crew landed in the Algerian desert. A second attempt failed when the balloon was blown away by a gust of wind during inflation. There was concern that it would wrap itself around an aircraft. Richard called me and said: “Kevin, I want you to get permission for a helicopter gunship to shoot the balloon and release the helium.” I said: “Okay, give me the details of the gunship.” He said: “No, I need you to find one!” It was the most surreal moment! Fortunately, the balloon came down by its own accord. 

Alex died in Marrakesh during parachute practice. It was a terrible time for everyone, as he was a great guy.

A new balloon was ready by December 1998, with Steve Fossett joining the crew. They avoided hotspots in the Middle East but hit trouble over China. The Chinese had granted flight permission on the condition that the balloon flew on the 26th parallel north latitude. The wind shifted, blew us off course and all hell broke loose! China demanded that we land in Tibet, but doing so would seriously risk the lives of the crew. The situation escalated, involving the Chinese and British governments.

The balloon left China as quickly as possible, but ended up heading towards North Korea! We hadn’t sought permission to fly there, as the odds of it happening were so remote. I finally reached Pyongyang and to everyone’s surprise, they were fine about it!

Unfortunately, we couldn't pick up the winds needed to take us over the Pacific and ICO Global came down near Hawaii. Richard’s passport sunk to the bottom of the ocean, meaning he couldn’t go to his Caribbean Island until we arranged a replacement.

A Swiss team completed the around the world flight the following year, but Steve still wanted to achieve the first solo flight. I joined his team as Air Traffic Control Co-ordinator. 

Steve chose the University of Washington in St Louis, were he was Governor, as mission control. He took off from Northam, Western Australia, but suffered a technical issue and landed in Brazil. We were preparing for another try when the 9/11 terror attacks occurred. When the balloon launched again, it was named Spirit of Freedom. 

Steve completed his epic journey. The idea of an American completing the first solo flight on Independence Day captured the imagination of the media. I found myself being interviewed by Radio 4 ‘s Today programme and by Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America.

The balloon capsule was placed in the Smithsonian Aerospace Museum in Washington. It has my name on it! There was a celebration dinner, where my son joined me. We sat at a table with Buzz Aldrin. The biggest strain in my life was refraining from asking him what it's like to walk on the moon! We had a photo taken with him next to the Apollo 11 capsule. He said: “It’s hard to believe we flew to the moon in that!”

David Hempleman-Adamsattempted to become the first person to fly across the Atlantic in an open basket balloon. I was part of the Control Team. On his third attempt, he took off from New Brunswick, Canada and was just beyond the Blackpool Tower when he landed. He is a great adventurer. You’d see him down the pub with a pint, chatting about his next challenge.

Steve Fossett then wanted to be the first person to fly solo around the world in an airplane. Naturally, Richard was involved and The Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer was born. I was given the job of Mission Control Director. I scoured America for airports that were quiet yet had a long runway, finding the perfect spot in Salina, Kansas. When I called the airport manager about our plan, he thought it was a prank.

Virgin are brilliant at whipping up publicity. They had amazing ideas, including setting up mission control in Times Square. But I wanted the base to be Salina. Virgin and the Events company it used transformed the Aviation College attached to Salina into a remarkable mission control centre. I couldn’t believe I would be running such an advanced operation. 

We encountered one problem, as the GlobalFlyer was venting fuel and we needed to calculate if Steve could make it over the Pacific. But he did it and being a part of it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Before long, Steve was talking about recording the longest ever solo flight. 

I was again Mission Control Director when Steve took off from Kennedy Space Centre. This time, I was based at Virgin’s offices in Crawley, sleeping in a Campervan in the car park. Steve crossed the Atlantic twice and we picked RAF Manston in Kent for the landing site. As he flew over southern England, Steve’s generator failed. The media had to rush from Kent to Bournemouth in time for his emergency landing!

Through my involvement with ballooning, I received The Royal Aero Club Bronze Medal, presented by Prince Andrew, and the Certificate of Achievement from the Royal Institute of Navigation, presented by Prince Phillip. 

Steve disappeared in 2007 while flying a light aircraft. His pilot licence was found by a hiker in the Sierra Nevada Desert a year later and his remains discovered soon after. Considering all the things he attempted and achieved, it was a tragedy that he should die in what was a relative stroll in the park.

My time at Virgin came to an end in 2015. I became involved in the Straightline Aviation Project, which operates helium-assisted airships in partnership with major manufacturers.

Mike Scholes had once run a balloon flight company before losing his sight to a rare condition. He was presenting a talk at a retirement village where my mum lives. She spoke to him afterwards and told him about me and it transpired that Mike and I had once met. A few weeks later, he contacted my mum again in a bid to track me down... 

Since losing his sight, Mike has attempted several long-distance challenges, the latest of which is to fly a balloon across the Atlantic with his partner Deborah Day, who runs a salon in Cuckfield. 

I met the couple in Mike’s home village of Lindfield, where he is much admired and there’s great excitement about his latest project. They have prepared well, entering a training regime, liaising with the Navy about the route and ordering a bespoke balloon. However, there were aspects where I felt they needed help, so I offered assistance on the logistics side. They aim to set off on 1 July. 

I haven't flown a balloon since 1984, but would like to rekindle my love of flying. I once told Per Lindstrand about my ballooning disaster. He just laughed and said: “I've had a few of those myself!’ It can happen to the best of them!



To support Mike Scholes and Deborah Day’s Transatlantic Balloon Challenge, please visit www.gofundme.com/transatlantic-balloon-challenge