Icom, the Radio Choice for the Growing Sport of CloudhoppingMost of us are fully aware of ballooning as a sport or hobby and they are a normal fixture in our skies in the Summer months, at Balloon festivals or sometimes to promote brands at big events such as the London Marathon. But what you may not have heard about is the fast growing sport of cloudhopping, which originated in the 1960’s. Its accessibility in terms of the size and cost of the sport is one of the things that has seen it literally take off in popularity. Obviously, this fast growing community require navigational and communication equipment to guide them through the skies, with Icom being one of the most popular brands among the sport. “Cloudhopping” originated in the 1960’s when a group of Americans chose to sit on the fuel tank of a small balloon and ride side-saddle style. “Cloudhoppers” as we know them today were created commercially in the early 1980’s with small one-person balloons typically from 9000cubic feet up to and including 42000 ft size. Originally, they were used for advertising purposes and at the end of each season the operators would come together to party and free-fly the craft. However they have become very popular due to the characteristics in the way they fly. Lots of small inputs regularly means instant reward, a bit like driving a small sports car. Main sizes today range from 25-42,000 cubic feet in size with the envelope sized to the pilot’s weight, and lift capacity needed at the altitude flown. They can come in a variety of bottom ends from a small collapsible basket, to a chariot (a seat with a tank underneath it), to a seat unit that swivels under the envelope. Worldwide, the sport of flying smaller balloons is taking off, literally. This niche of ballooning is populated by probably 10-15% of all the balloon pilots in the UK and is growing at a fast rate since they are very rewarding to fly and cheap to run. The sport is catching on since the compact nature of the craft means it fits into a typical estate car and can be carried by two people. Steve Roake (pictured above) is the Editor of the popular ‘Cloudhopper News’ newsletter and website which is distributed online throughout the globe. Steve is a 58 year old Mechanical Engineer who originated in Aircraft Engineering with British Aerospace. Mechanically trained (apprenticeship) on the workshop floor but technician at college to degree standard as an Airframe Fitter, then transferred his skill sets into Composite Technologies for Formula One teams working with Carbon Fibre in precision environments for 38 years, before turning independent. Steve said, ‘Cloudhoppers was an idea that I had in late 2003 because this type of ballooning had little or no representation. The idea was to start a Yahoo groups discussion forum in January 2004 and the first person who requested membership was Don Piccard ( the guy who had originally ridden side saddle in the 60’s) – so how could I say No?. After a few months I wrote a quarterly Newsletter called Cloudhoppers News which then became bi-monthly and eventually monthly dependent upon content. The website www.cloudhoppers.org followed and then the Facebook page. I literally became the go-to guy on the subject of Cloudhopping and eventually when we set a world record for the most number of Cloudhoppers in the air, became a brand ambassador for one of the manufacturers.’ Steve added, ‘I typically fly between 20-25 hours each year. The restrictions are no different to any other balloon. You need a PPL B license which typically you gain on a bigger craft and then learn to fly a hopper afterwards. Most pilots have a radio licence as they share the airspace with everyone else and controllers are there to help all concerned. Naturally, I can fly in controlled airspace, but we tend to fly low level in de-restricted airspace due to our low manoeuvring speeds.’ He added, ‘Airband communication is imperative for air to air safety on a balloonists’ frequency when flying en-masse from an event. It is also very useful in controlled airspace to alert controllers to your position because a lot of the time we do not paint a radar signature and we are slow. My local controlled airspace “Farnborough” are very helpful, often thanking me for giving them a heads up whilst they direct heavy business jets around me, inbound and outbound from the airport.’ Icom is the prominent choice of Airband VHF radio for Cloudhoppers. Steve said, ‘Sometimes you need a technology you can forget since its quality precedes it. Icom radios sell themselves, not unlike Snap on tools or Garmin GPS equipment. You want to know once you have purchased, that your buy is future proof and will stand the test of time. I have never questioned Icom quality, having previously owned other handheld devices which were upgraded when 8.33 separation of frequencies made them redundant in the UK. In fact my pair of IC-A3’s are being frequently used in the USA by a friend I donated them to, and in the 15 years of ownership one set of replacement batteries was all I had to buy. Whilst airborne, I communicate with other pilots for spatial awareness whilst in a congested area, or to a launch master at a festival and obviously to controllers when operating in controlled airspace asking for permissions to operate within their area.’ As to the future of Cloudhopping, Steve said, ‘Hoppers are becoming the next fun thing in ballooning. Festivals have more entrants than ever before. Due to their small size you can do fun things with them, for example displaying in the centre of a busy town or city or even indoors. The nature of the craft and the way they are stored makes them portable and so they are easy to travel with commercially.’ He added, ‘Year on year sales continue to climb, second hand goods are still outstripped by demand so residual prices remain high and the desire to get into hopping continues to thrive. In 2004 I never would have dreamed we would be where we are now. I never set out to be a focal point. I just had a passion that remains undiminished and so the sky is really the limit. We are only limited by our imagination and thinking of applications yet untried. Commercially, Balloons have a great retention factor for advertising purposes and a balloon arrival is inevitably an occasion. With hoppers it just happens to be more so due to their uniqueness.’ To find out more about the exciting world of Cloudhopping and to subscribe to Cloudhopper News visit: www.cloudhoppers.org/. This article was researched and written before the Covid 19 Pandemic.