Lofty ambitions: A look into the life of a hot air balloon pilot

When many of us think of going to work, it might conjure up images of heading out to the office, shop or warehouse at which we spend 30, 40 or more hours every week; but what if going to work meant stepping out into the fresh air, setting up a hot air balloon and soaring thousands of feet into the sky?

Jon Rudoni is one of the rare few to have had the opportunity to avoid the humdrum of the traditional workplace and instead make a living as a commercial hot air balloon pilot. Having spent 25 years in the profession, Jon has really seen the world from a different perspective and still approaches every day of this unique role with great enthusiasm.

We spoke to Jon this week and gained some insight into what it’s like to have a career in which, quite literally, the sky’s the limit:

First of all, Jon, can you tell us how you became a hot air balloon pilot?

I’ve always been very interested in aviation, and perhaps what sums this up best is that I was able to fly gliders before I even had a driving licence. Ballooning was just out there to try, I suppose, and it interested me because it was a lot less common then than it is now. Initially, it was just something I did for my fun at my own expense but, as ballooning became more common, I started to consider whether there might be a business in it, and here I am today. It really is just a happy coincidence that things have worked out the way they have.

What was your first experience of riding in a hot air balloon?

I was probably about 18 or 19 years old, and we flew from a pub owned by my parents. It was a surreal experience and, I’ll admit, quite a nerve-wracking one as well. Ballooning has come a long way since then, and the one I went in was a lot more rickety than something you might ride in today.

There was also much more of an unknown factor about ballooning. These days, it’s not hard to find someone else who has already done it but, back then, there was no-one.

How do your passengers normally feel before the flight? Are they nervous? Excited?

Usually a combination of both, but what we find is that the experience always exceeds their expectations. People often approach ballooning with a degree of apprehension – they worry about it being windy or cold, they imagine the basket swaying and they expect to become airsick. The reality is that the balloon moves with the wind, so the ride is a very calm one.

Ballooning is quite a special experience in that way. Whereas people often approach other ventures with high expectations that fall flat, I think riding in a hot air balloon tends to be quite the opposite for most people.

You must have seen some amazing things from balloons. What would you rank as your best experiences?

I’ve flown over the Red Square in Moscow, the Andes and even Scandinavia, but nothing tops the Alps for me. We’ve travelled at 70-80mph at a height of 22,000 feet above the Matterhorn, one of the highest peaks in the Alpine region, which truly was a surreal and breathtaking experience. The beauty of the Alps is that they’re relatively accessible compared to higher mountain groups like the Himalayas, but are still tall and vast enough to make for an exhilarating sight.

That’s not to say that ballooning in Britain can’t be just as spectacular, though. What I love about this country is that its ancient landscape gives it some beautiful countryside and strange, higgledy-piggedly roads that you just don’t get in other countries.

One of my most incredible experiences was ballooning from Guernsey to mainland Britain for Children In Need. There was nothing to see but 60 miles of sea, and we only had 20 minutes of fuel left when we landed! Of course, it’s all about timing and you’re completely dependent upon the behaviour of the wind but, as luck would have it, we landed on the day of Children In Need itself. That must’ve been a one in a hundred chance!

Are there any interesting stories about passenger experiences that stand out?

Well, as a good example of ballooning often confounding people’s expectations, I once flew out with a blind gentleman. I always imagine blind people to have more heightened senses to compensate for their lack of sight, but this man actually couldn’t tell that the balloon had left the ground. He only believed me when I pointed out to him that the voices of people back on the ground were fading. It was a strange experience for him, because even though he knew he’d left the ground, his body was telling him he hadn’t.

What advice would you have for anyone interested in becoming a hot air balloon pilot? What personality traits and qualifications do you need?

I would say above all, you need patience, because you’re always at the mercy of the weather. In a way, it’s a lot like farming. A farmer can sow all the seeds he likes, but the weather will dictate how many crops he harvests. In our case, the seeds are the vouchers, and the crops are the rides themselves. There’s no point getting frustrated about bad weather though – you need to go into the job accepting that it’s beyond your control.

It’s certainly not a job for someone who wants to work set shifts or have 9 to 5 hours. As a balloon pilot, you have to fit your life around your job and the weather. The plus side is that you do get plenty of time off, but it won’t be at times when you can enjoy the sunshine!

In terms of qualifications, the first step is to get a Private Pilot’s Licence, which requires about 30 hours of training and passing an examination. This allows you to fly for your own pleasure, but things become a lot more stringent if you want to move into the commercial side of ballooning. Commercial pilots need to pass higher qualifications to prove they’re fit to fly, retake their flying exam every year and pass a much tougher written exam. They also need to be licenced by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority), who monitor not only pilots and how often they’re flying, but also the maintenance of their balloons.

Lastly, what would say to anybody who is tempted to ride in a hot air balloon, but feels apprehensive or nervous about doing so?

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that everything is really tightly monitored in the UK, as I mentioned earlier. Statistically, ballooning in this country is very, very safe – in the last 25 years, there’s been just one fatality from ballooning, and that was down to human error and a pilot deciding to fly in foggy weather.

Nowadays, we have a mantra that “the decision not to fly is never the wrong one”. Even if you cancel a flight but then the sun comes out and the wind stops, the point remains that your decision not to fly was correct at the time. As a pilot, that’s really the mentality you need to have.

Jon is the co-founder and operations director of Staffordshire-based ballooning company Wickers World, which has taken thousands of passengers into the skies since 1987.

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