What is it like to be a Virgin Balloon Flights pilot?

Flying isn't all about aeroplanes, so to celebrate another type of flying for Flight Month we caught up with Mark Shemilt, a pilot at Virgin Balloon Flights to find out more about ballooning...

How did you get into ballooning?

I started in 1988, I saw a hot air balloon going up once and thought, 'Wow that looks amazing I've got to get into that,' and I contacted a local airline pilot who did ballooning as a hobby and offered my services as his crew. For every two or three times I drove his Landrover on a retrieve he would let me have a go on the balloon. I got the bug in the late 80s and got my licence, and religiously built hours. I loved it so much that I just flew and flew and flew.

The commercial licence came out in the early 90s and I jumped at the chance to get it because I wasn't enjoying my job in London so much – I was training to become an accountant and ballooning was my sort of therapy from the boredom of checking invoices. I got my commercial license, worked for various companies, and started my own ballooning company. Ballooning was booming in the 90s, a lot of advertising people were sponsoring balloons; there were a lot of special shapes and vessels. I then joined Virgin Balloon Flights in 2004 and have been with them since. It's brilliant because they take care of all the administration and I can get out there and fly, which suits me down to the ground.

Image from Virgin Balloon Flights

How has the technology changed since you started ballooning?

They're actually changing all the time. In the 27 years I've been working with balloons, 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. 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. 

The kit has definitely changed a lot too; all us commercial pilots now fly with GPS, GHF radios, transponders. It's almost a case of too much gadgetry because at the end of the day flying a balloon is a lot about feel and very quick judgments in problem solving. I've seen some pilots who make their baskets look like a flight deck of a 737 when really good old human judgment is the best instrument. 

But also the way that you organise flights and retrieves has changed too, I remember fondly we had a system where you and your retrieve crew would agree on a phone number, perhaps your mum, and when the balloon landed you would phone your mum and say where you were and the retrieve would phone your mum and find out where you had landed. Of course now radios and mobiles do that job, we've come a long way.

That said, the basic principle of hot air balloons hasn't changed – you burn to go up and you let the thing cool to come down. It's that delay which is critical to training in a balloon, you've got to judge what the balloon is going to do next and act accordingly and that's what you try and teach pilots under training is to anticipate the delay in response.

The wonderful thing with ballooning is it's full of surprises, you never quite know what's over the next hill.

Image from Virgin Balloon Flights

What is involved in training to be a balloon pilot?

It's actually pretty straight forward because one of the lovely concessions in ballooning is that you can learn with any other pilot, unlike fixed wing where you have to go to an airfield, rent a plane, and get an instructor. With ballooning, the lovely informality of it is that any pilot can teach you. You have to do two instructor flights and you need to build 30 hours in total and sit some multiple choice exams, which are easy and then you sit a general flying test. If you can show that you can fly safely and land properly then off you go, you've got your PPL.

Is ballooning still a popular pastime?

Ballooning suffered slightly around the time of foot and mouth disease, which I think was about 2003-2004. There was a blanket ban on ballooning because farmers didn't want people dropping out of the sky and potentially spreading the disease. A lot of people fell away from the sport then, but since then It's coming back a bit, I know of lots of young people taking it up and I'm actually helping a guy from Oxford get his licence. 

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.

Image from Virgin Balloon Flights

Why do you enjoy being a commercial balloon pilot?

My job as a commercial pilot is not just to fly the balloon but also as a tour guide and motivator, because 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 that you have to hone if you're going to make it as a balloon pilot, I think.

What are your best memories of ballooning?

Ballooning does lend itself to the best experiences, I've flown across the channel twice, I've flown in the Alps a lot – balloons and mountains go well together. I remember my first flight with oxygen to 16,000 feet. I've set two world records for distance and duration. I flew a very long way in a cloudhopper, which is a one man balloon with no basket, you just wear a harness and sit under an envelope and I've sat in one of those for about eight hours and I flew one about 150 miles to get a distance record. Those are memorable because the technology that we were trying out for that balloon was very cutting-edge, it was an insulated balloon and a very lightweight burner and the tanks were made out of fibreglass. 

Apart from that, night flying is amazing. Flying at night over mountains and the channel flights would definitely be some of the most memorable.

Image from Mark Shemilt

In my work for Virgin Balloon Flight, the longer flights, where it's a proper adventure are the best. Yesterday morning for instance, we did a long flight from Henley out west towards Streatley and it started off very overcast but as the sun got to work we were able to go through a hole in the cloud and sit at about 3,000 feet, above the clouds that were breaking up below us and we got this amazing view of the whole of the Chilterns and it was a glorious day. You could feel in the basket that people were just going 'Wow, this is incredible.' You've got to remember in a balloon there's no noise like an aircraft or feeling of dynamic speed because balloons travel quite slowly and there's long periods of complete silence and in a wicker basket at 3,000 feet looking down on the clouds it is absolutely stunning and I think it's moments like that I remember with passengers.

It's quite fun to fly very young people and very old people – even some with osteoporosis where we have to help them into the basket – but to see their reaction to something that they've never tried before and it's on their bucket list, it's lovely. And they come and thank me afterwards and say, 'Wow, I didn't realise what a beautiful pastime this is.' 

I have lot of memorable moments and the wonderful thing with ballooning is it's full of surprises, you never quite know what's over the next hill. This morning 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 and I think he was as amazed as we were.

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