THIS morning I took to the skies above the green fields of Wiltshire on my very first flight in a hot air balloon and what a fantastic experience it turned out to be.

I was one of many people invited to a special preview event for Longleat’s annual Sky Safari festival with around 120 hot air balloons taking off in the early morning sunshine.

After strong winds meant yesterday's preview event was cancelled, Longleat's annual event is now in full flight for the weekend. On Saturday and Sunday, the skies above Wiltshire are set to be filled with dozens of spectacular hot air balloons.

I went up with American hot air balloon pilot, Kris Hlebechuk, from Wasilla in Alaska, and his crew assistant, Kristen Nicholls, from Witham Friary, whom he met at last year’s event at Longleat.

Our balloon was on loan from the event organisers, Exclusive Ballooning, and there was only enough room in the basket for three people. Before, I even knew it, we had gained 700 feet in height in just a few seconds after the tethering rope was released.

Mr Hlebechuk is one of the many hot air balloon pilots from around the world competing for points and prizes in this year’s Sky Safari festival organised by Andrew Holly, of Exclusive Ballooning. Most of the British national team are taking part.

During the flight, Kris, 40, an airline pilot, told me: “I started ballooning back in 1999 and have been doing it commercially since 2000. It took off for me when I came 9th out of 1,000 competitors in a balloon festival in Albuquerque in New Mexico.

“This is the second year that I’ve been to Longleat and it’s getting bigger and better each time, with hot air balloon pilots from the USA, Canada, Spain, Dubai and the UK taking part.”

During the flight, our aim was to follow the lead balloon and to get as close to a target mark in a field as we could. However, as we were descending we got too close to another competitor and had to ascend rapidly instead of being able to continue on our flight path.

Kris said: “We should have gone to the left to obtain the thermal push I needed, instead we had to rise. The problem is that it’s not my balloon. I am only using it on loan for the weekend. However, it likes to float so things will get better over the next two days.”

Kristen, 19, a sports science student at Bournemouth University, got into ballooning last year because her parents, Jenny and Jess Nicholls, who run L F Nicholls & Son, a transport company, are interested.

“My mum was always interested in hot air ballooning and whenever we see one coming down, it’s like let’s chase it and see where it lands,” she said.

We eventually landed in a field full of harvest stubble, about a 15-minute drive away from Longleat. The landing was only slightly bumpy and we had a 20-minute wait for the rescue vehicle to arrive.

Following on from the popularity of last year’s event, Mr Holly said the Exclusive Cup team had more than doubled the number of balloons taking part, with cash prizes and a car to be won.

He added: “We’re on track to be the largest annual event of its kind in the UK with 120 balloons planned for a mass launch at some point over the weekend and more than 550 total ascents attempted over all three days.

“Last year’s inaugural Sky Safari was a huge success and this year’s event is set to be significantly larger with balloons and balloonists from across the globe heading for Longleat including past and current world champions from the United States.

“We’ve also increased the number of night glows and re-located the tethered displays to a new area nearer to Longleat House which will enable visitors to get closer than ever to the balloons.”

Longleat’s very own lion shaped hot air balloon, Simbaloo, will be taking to the skies alongside penguins; Puddles and Splash, who will also be showing off their cute new penguin chick balloon at the event for the first time.

Tonight and on Saturday evening, Longleat House will be lit up by a very special celebratory night glow event with the balloons firing up their burners to musical accompaniment.

A Longleat spokesperson said: “Morning tethering is still due to go ahead today as planned from 10am to 12 noon.

“There is the potential for some rain showers this afternoon, which may affect the afternoon tethering from 2pm to 4pm, but as it stands we are still planning a mass launch at 5.3pm and the night glow at 8pm.”

In addition to the early morning and dusk launches on Friday, Saturday and Sunday the tethered displays will be taking place from 10am-midday and 2pm-4pm on all three days.

The night glow event is due to take place from 7.30pm on Saturday. Due to the nature of hot air ballooning all the events are subject to the weather.

Longleat will be posting regular updates on social media throughout the weekend with the very latest information on balloon ascents and other activities.

Admission to the event is free with a valid day ticket, however advance online booking is recommended as it is likely to prove very popular.

Visit for more details or call 01985 844400.