Winter in the UK doesn’t provide ideal conditions for flying hot air balloons. So how do Virgin Balloon Flights pilots cope with the off season? Some of them, such as Pete Philpott, take flight to warmer climates like a migrating bird.
Admitting he struggles when he can’t fly in the UK, the only way to quench his thirst for ballooning is to head for exotic locations. This winter Pete is relocating to Melbourne, Australia, for the third Christmas in a row.
The Virgin Balloon Flights pilot describes flying over and around Melbourne as “the holy grail” for those in his job. He explains how it is not only exciting to ride the wind over such a big city, but also challenging.
“It is the only really big city in the world that allows balloons to fly literally through the city skyscrapers,” he says. “You have to manage the cityscape, Melbourne International Airspace restrictions and only small green landing spaces to target fly (towards).”
But the view from above over the impressive city line is worth the challenge.
During the UK flying season, Pete flies the big red Virgin Balloon Flights balloon in the Midlands. Launching from counties such as Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, his passengers enjoy views of “varied and beautiful countryside”.
He keeps flying in the UK for as long as the weather allows, sometimes even into November. But when the colder days begin, the flying season has to end and Pete gets restless. He says: “If the weather is bad and I can't fly, I get cabin fever and become grumpy. I have the same problem when we have to stop flying during the UK winter.”
While the image of a beautiful hot air balloon over a sparkling snowy landscape might look amazing, the UK winter isn’t ballooning-friendly. The reality is windy, wet, freezing weather, with drastically reduced visibility.
That’s why the UK’s hot air balloon rides come to a halt in late autumn. The number of days suitable to fly are so few and far between from December to February that it would put the number of cancellations too high to be fair to passengers.
Christmas Down Under
Pete loves flying balloons so much that he can’t even stay away on Christmas Day. If December 25th blesses Melbourne with good flying weather, his day will start with a beautiful flight over the nearby Yarra Valley.
Just like that other jolly chap who makes Christmas wishes come true, Pete almost always dons a festive hat in the spirit of the occasion. After landing, passengers enjoy a champagne breakfast before heading on their way to enjoy the rest of Christmas Day with family and friends.
Once the flight is finished it’ll still only be 9am so Pete and his crew will exchange presents, before he heads home to spend the rest of the day with his nearest and dearest.
“I hop in the car and drive back to my wife and son at our home on the coast. We’ll probably spend the day snorkelling under the jetty and celebrating with friends,” he says.
“Then we’ll maybe go and have a barbecue dinner in a shady spot somewhere, either on the coast or at a country park, before heading home to watch the sunset with a cup of tea.
“Then it’s bed for 9pm, as I’l be up early again on Boxing Day to make more Christmas dreams come true.”
Where it all began
Pete’s passion for ballooning first began Down Under, two decades ago. “My first job in ballooning was 20 years ago in Australia. I was on a year working visa when I saw a job advert for driving support crew,” he says. “It was for an advertising balloon. We flew a huge Cadbury Freddo frog all over Australia and handed out Freddo chocolate bars.
“I was hooked and found a Virgin Balloon Flights pilot to crew for when I got back home in the UK.”
A few years of crewing and pilot training later and Pete qualified as a commercial balloon pilot in his own right. He joined the team at Virgin Balloon Flights in 2012.
Australia enjoys beautiful hot weather, but pilots operate on a different schedule to the UK, with only one flight a day. Another difference to flying in the UK is the higher number of tourists from different countries. “We fly lots of Chinese guests who travel to Melbourne for Chinese New Year holidays. They have translators to help with our pre-flight safety briefings.”
Christmas at home
Even when the UK flying season comes to an end (and some of its pilots enjoy sunnier destinations), Virgin Balloon Flights is just as popular and busy as it is the rest of the year.
A hot air balloon ride is a hugely popular Christmas gift, living up to Virgin Balloon Flights festive motto of ‘Unwrap An Adventure’.
You’d be surprised what fits under the tree. A hot air balloon ride with Pete or any of the fabulous Virgin Balloon Flights pilots from a choice of more than 100 locations across the country is a truly unforgettable Christmas gift. Find out how you could take life higher with Virgin Balloon Flights.