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How do you become a hot air balloon pilot?

17th January 2020 Mark Features

Maybe ever since you watched Dorothy and Toto escape from Oz in a hot air balloon, you have been entranced by these floating domes that serenely and colourfully cruise the skies?

Maybe it is the thirst for adventure that comes from being able to navigate the skies under your own steam?

Maybe, it is the sense of serenity you feel as you pass over the rooftops and treetops below, watching from your birds-eye vantage point as the rolling landscape unfolds beneath you?

Whatever your motivation, if you have taken a hot air balloon trip and have got the ballooning bug, you may be tempted to join some of the thousands who have become hot air balloon pilots.

Do you need a pilot’s licence to fly a hot air balloon?

Yes, hot air balloons are registered aircrafts and licences to fly then are issued by the Civil Aviation Authority. Flying a hot air balloon comes with its own risks, and just like learning to drive a car, requires certain criteria to be met before you can obtain your licence and be let loose in the open skies.

How long does it take to learn?

You have a two-year window in which to complete all the criteria of becoming a licenced pilot.

What sort of person can become a hot air balloon pilot?

Anyone aged over 18 can become a hot air balloon pilot. Once you have experienced a flight as a passenger and you have decided to train to be a pilot, you need to join the British Balloon and Airship Club (BBAC) to order your pilot log book and your training log book, then start working towards your Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL). It is also advisable to join your local flying club to get your training hours in. Many people who become hot air balloon pilots start off crewing with established pilots to get hands-on experience.

How do you get your PPL?

In order to obtain your PPL, you need to achieve 16 hours of flight as the pilot in command (known as a P1). Four of those flights need to be taken with a certified instructor and it all needs to take place within a two-year window.

Once you have achieved 16 hours, 6 flights and 4 instructor flights, you will be recommended for your flight exam, where you will fly solo under the supervision of an examiner.

Are there any written exams to pass?

There is a strong theory component to the PPL. Within the two-year training period, you must pass written examinations on the subjects of Aviation Law, Navigation, Meteorology, Balloon System and Human Performance.

Following this, a successful medical, and a training course about how to respect the countryside and maintain good relations between landowners and balloonists, you can be issued with your licence to fly privately.

What if you want to go further?

If you already hold your PPL, there are two forms of commercial licence you can work towards in order to start making a living as a hot air balloon pilot:

Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) B Restricted

The CPL B Restricted allows you to fly a balloon for a sponsor, or for a fee from a paying customer. To progress to this licence, you need to complete 35 hours of flight, 15 of which as the pilot. You need to achieve four flights to a height of 5,000 feet and two flights tethered to the ground. There is another solo flight exam, and your theory exams must be up to date. You also need a declaration of health from your doctor.

Commercial Pilot Licence B Restricted

A CPL B Unrestricted requires you to complete 75 hours of flight time of which 60 hours must be as the pilot in charge. You need a class 2 medical certificate and a solo flight exam, as well as up-to-date theory exams.

What resource do you need to help you to prepare?

The BBAC recommends that aspiring pilots use the following texts:

• The Air Pilots Manual – Volume 2 – for Aviation Law and Meteorology
• Human Factors for Pilots — Green et al or The Air Pilots Manual – Volume 6 – for Human Performance
• The BBAC Pilot Training Manual — for Balloon Systems and Navigation
• Manufacturers Flight & Maintenance Manual — for Balloon Systems.

The BBAC also recommend that you acquire some Landranger maps to be able to navigate from the skies, a protractor to calculate and plot the likely direction a balloon is following, a GPS, some radios, and an altimeter to measure your altitude.

It can be expensive to train to be a pilot, so consider doing it with like-minded friends with whom you might be able to share the costs.

What can you do once you have a balloon pilot’s licence?

Once you have your PPL, you can buy a balloon and fly it at festivals such as the UK’s own Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. If you are feeling adventurous, pack it up and take it to some of the more exotic ballooning locations, including Mexico, Japan, Turkey and several in the USA.

If you have a commercial licence, you might be able to earn a living as a hot air balloon tour guide, taking tourists over some of the world’s most iconic sights; over the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, the mountains of Gstaad in Switzerland, Monument Valley in Utah, or the temple of Teotihuacan in Mexico.

Taking the first step

The key to becoming a hot air balloonist is practice. Once you have had your first taste as a passenger, take every opportunity you can at your flying club to get up into the skies. Fly with different instructors to learn different techniques and to broaden your appreciation of hot air ballooning culture. Read widely, focus on getting your hours in within two years and join the happy throngs of people who have made the dream of aeronautical adventure a reality for them.

Remember, every journey starts with a first step: we suggest kicking off your dream with one of our qualified, professional pilots who can give you your first taste of hot air balloon magic on one of our passenger flights.

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