From near-death experiences to round-the-world voyages, the hot air balloon has been at the heart of some of Richard Branson’s greatest adventures. But how much do you know about ballooning? We sat down with Virgin Balloon Flights pilot, Mark Shemilt, to find out more…
The technology in ballooning has changed quite significantly since Shemilt started flying back in 1988. “The major advance is in fabric technology, which is changing all the time. Our commercial balloons are made of a very strong a siliconised nylon, which gives a slight weight penalty, but it means they last longer and are really as tough as old boots,” he says. “But generally in ballooning, things are getting lighter because the lighter you can make a balloon, it means you can carry more people or more fuel. There have been advances in fuel containers, they're now made of fibreglass, and burners are getting quieter so we don't upset livestock. About the only thing that hasn't changed really is the good old wicker basket.”
Beyond the balloon itself, technology is playing a much bigger part in the kit that pilots take with them into balloons. You can expect to find commercial pilots flying with GPS, very high frequency radios and transponders. Shemilt admits “it’s almost a case of too much gadgetry” with some pilots’ baskets “looking like a flight deck of a 737”.
To get a ballooning license, you need to have had at least 16 hours of flying experience within the last two years. You have to undertake a minimum of six flights – four of which must be taken with an approved instructor and any others with anyone who already holds a licence.
Shemilt says, “In one good, nice summer in England you can easily learn to get your ballooning licence. In fact, if you take the plunge and buy your own hot air balloon, which is what I did – a second-hand balloon for about £5,000 – then pilots will come to you. In that way it's very accessible, you can keep it in your garage and fly it from the back lawn or a local sports ground, wherever you want and you can buy propane quite easily, it's quite an accessible sport. It's one that I'm glad to say that more young people are taking up.”
There are also written examinations to pass on aviation law, navigation, meteorology and balloon systems, and pilots must be declared medically fit. Find out more about balloon pilot licensing on the British Balloon and Airship Club website.
More than flying
Shemilt says he loves his job because it’s more than just flying the balloon – he’s also a tour guide and motivator. “You have a group of people who’ve never met before, who are all slightly shy, perhaps a little bit nervous and you have to galvanise them into helping unfurl the balloon and inflate it and give everyone a job and chat to them.
“And by the end of the flight when they’ve rolled around in a basket and had a glass of champagne, you can’t stop them talking. It’s quite fun in that sense. It’s not for shrinking violets, you have to be a bit bossy and deal with landowners and charm them a bit. It’s got a lot of extraneous skills you have to hone if you’re going to make it as a balloon pilot, I think.”
Ballooning is full of surprises. “You never quite know what’s over the next hill,” Shemilt says, sharing a story of one surprising discovery. “We found a guy playing the trumpet in the middle of the woods, I think he’d been turfed out by his partner for practising so we said good morning and flew on. I think he was as amazed as we were.”
Ballooning is also a lot of fun. Shemilt says he particularly enjoys flying very young and very old people. “To see their reaction to something that they’ve never tried before, and it’s on their bucket list, it’s lovely. They come and thank me afterwards and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realise what a beautiful pastime this is.’”