Donald Cameron, MBE, RDI, FRAeS

Doctor of Engineering
Thursday 17 February 2017 at 4 pm - Orator: Professor Nick Lieven

Pro Vice-Chancellor,

There are very few people on the planet who can legitimately claim that their entire career has been based on hot air.  There may be a few politicians who dispute this, but Don Cameron’s life long association with hot air balloons puts him in an unassailably privileged position to claim a global domination in the field of ballooning.

Starting an industry from a basement in Cotham to a factory in Bedminster in Bristol, which now produces approximately one balloon a day with a dealership network in thirty five countries around the world, there is no one who has a higher and more esteemed reputation in the field of so called “lighter than air” aviation.

So, where did this all start?  Don Cameron was born in Glasgow in July 1939.  By the age of seventeen there were already signs that his leaning was going to take him into the field of aviation by achieving the air training core proficiency certificate, which I note with a distinguished pass.  This led to a degree from Glasgow University in Aeronautics where at the same time he obtained his private pilot’s licence, at this stage for fixed wing only.  He was clearly enthused by engineering as he then went on to do a Masters at Cornell University in Industrial Engineering before starting his career with the Bristol Aircraft Company in our home city.

Don’s destiny was to pursue a serene rise through the ranks of the Bristol Aircraft Company.  However Don had different ideas, as a keen pilot himself - and dare I say a Glaswegian - he puts his deviation into hot air ballooning down to drink.  As he says, the reason why he started building balloons was a conversation in the Bristol Gliding Club bar with a group of fellow pilots about the idea of building a hot air balloon.

One year later they had constructed the Bristol Belle which was the first modern air balloon made in Europe.  That was in 1967, which is interesting to note that on the 9th July this year it will be the 50th anniversary of its first flight.

Of course there was a slight problem, private pilots’ licences were issued to helicopter and fixed wing aviators thus Don has the distinction of being in the first holder of a UK pilot licence specifically for balloons.

Building on the success of the Bristol Belle, he founded Cameron Balloons in 1970 making them in the basement of a house in Cotham.  It is worth bearing in mind how courageous or even real this was, given that at the time there were only 20 qualified balloon pilots in the UK - hardly an auspicious start for a globally leading company.

Undaunted and fuelled by considerable aviation successes which included building the world’s largest hot air balloon and world record flights between continents, Cameron Balloons established itself as the go to manufacturer, building an industry which has placed the UK and Bristol at the pinnacle of the discipline.  It is worth noting that Cameron Balloons not only manufactures the largest number but also holds three current world records for free ballooning, including manufacturing the Breitling Orbiter which still holds the prize for the longest balloon flight of 477 hours as well as the longest solo flight in any type of piloted aircraft.  Only last year Fedor Konyukhov achieved the shortest time circumnavigating the world in a mere 268 hours.  It is not surprising then that Don Cameron and Cameron balloons have been feted around the world.

There are numerous medals and trophies, perhaps the most notable being a clean sweep of the Royal Aeronautical Society medals, bronze, silver and gold as well as the Harmon trophy which was awarded to Don in the White House in 1976.  The significance of this US prize is reinforced by the company he keeps.  The previous winners have included Charles Lindberg, Howard Hughes and Buzz Aldrin – all tough acts to follow.

Such is the success of Cameron balloons that it has built a whole community focused around Bristol, specifically in this area of aviation.  We all know and celebrate the Bristol Balloon Fiesta, for which Don is still the chairman, which attracts over 150 aircraft a year many of which have been built and designed by Don himself.  75% of the worlds special shape hot air balloons are built by Cameron on software which was designed and programmed by Don Cameron himself and is still used today.  Do not underestimate the engineering challenge: balloons have no rigid parts and are only made with flexible material, a particularly difficult structural analysis problem.

Not only has Don dominated the industry through manufacturing, his achievements as a pilot should not go unannounced.  He piloted the first major attempt on the transatlantic crossing, stopping one hundred miles short of the coast of France but still achieved the FAI world record for a ninety six hour flight for which he was also awarded the Royal Aeronautical Society gold medal.  However, he did achieve second place in the very first transatlantic hot air balloon race but his adventuring spirt also led him to world firsts from the first hot air flight over the Swiss Alps and the very first flight from the UK to the Soviet Union in 1990 shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall with his Russian co-pilot – so an international diplomat as well.

It is not surprising therefore that we are honoured to have Don Cameron with us today to celebrate a lifelong achievement and a globally leading position for ballooning inspired, designed, manufactured and flown by Don himself.  Thus, Pro Vice-Chancellor, it is with great pleasure that I commend to you Donald Allan Cameron as being eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Engineering honoris causa.

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