After flying in a balloon or even just seeing one in the sky, many people often wonder what it takes to become a pilot. Achieving a pilot’s licence requires important training along with a great deal of commitment and passion for ballooning.
There are two types of pilot’s licence; one is a private licence (PPL) that allows you to fly passengers without charge. The second is the one all our pilots have, a commercial licence (CPL), which allows them to operate a balloon for hire.
As soon as you climb on board with the intention of learning how to pilot a hot air balloon, you become a PUT (Pilot Under Training). First things first, you must have a flight as a passenger – this checks that you will enjoy your time in the sky before committing more time and energy to becoming a pilot. If you’re still keen to continue, you then have to join the British Balloon and Airship Club (BBAC) and get affiliated with your local BBAC region. This enables you to meet pilots in your area – be sure to become good friends with some of these guys as they’re the ones that can teach you how it’s done! Another important necessity is a medical declaration of fitness signed by your GP to ensure you are fit to fly.
If all the requirements are fulfilled, it’s then up, up and away as the training begins. When training, you must keep a log of the hours which needs to include at least 16 hours flying experience and a minimum of 6 flights (4 of which need to be with a BBAC approved instructor). Just as important as the physical activity of ballooning, hopeful pilots need to keep on top of the theory. Various ballooning books and aviation charts are available to help with this and BBAC recommend ones such as ‘The Air Pilots Manual – Volume 2 – Air Law and Meteorology’ and ‘The BBAC Pilot Training Manual – for Balloon Systems and Navigation’ (BBAC, updated March 2010). At Virgin Balloon Flights, we consider this next requirement to be hugely important; attending a Landowner Relations course. This helps to raise awareness of respect for the countryside and to ensure continuing good communication between farmers and balloonists.
To finally qualify, you must perform a solo flight under the supervision of an examiner and take a written examination in Aviation Law, Navigation, Meteorology, Balloon Systems and Human Performance. To further achieve a commercial pilot’s licence, a further 35 hours in the air is required, including 10 flights in total (2 of which need to be solo) and a controlled ascent up to 3000 feet above the take-off point. The last step is two final tests- a written and a practical knowledge test from the Civil Aviation Authority, once you’ve passed those…you will be a fully qualified commercial hot air balloon pilot!
A lot of balloonists were crew first and gained experience flying with their pilot. Others travel to places like Italy or France for intense courses which give them the knowledge and basic hours required to gain a PPL. It takes years to build up to flying larger commercial balloons like ours as you need many hours and to be assessed flying the larger aircraft.
This may all sound hard work, but the rewards are definitely worth it. Being a hot air balloon pilot is one of the most exciting and interesting jobs you could have. Here’s what a two of our pilots had to say:
“The thing I love most about ballooning is that every flight is completely different, which makes the job more interesting each time you fly. You also get to meet a different group of people on each flight. It’s great to be able to give people that once in a lifetime experience of flying in a hot air balloon.” Des Bimson
“The best thing about ballooning is the peace and serenity, no other flying comes remotely close. My most memorable flight was flying over the Alps in Austria, the most amazing scenery of snow covered mountain peaks as far as the eye could see.” Robert Keron