Exclusive interview with a Virgin Balloon Flights pilot
As Virgin Balloon Flights, the world’s largest balloon rides business, celebrates its 20th birthday, we chat to Norfolk-based pilot Robert Keron about the highlights of being a hot air balloon pilot.
Being a hot air balloon pilot sounds like a dream job – how did you become one?
In 1990 I was involved in running our family farm near Norwich when I saw a hot air balloon flying overhead. I was fascinated and knew there and then I had to become a balloon pilot! I bought a small second-hand balloon and found an instructor to train me. To qualify as a commercial balloon pilot I had to take exams similar to those needed to get a pilot’s licence – including subjects such as meteorology and ‘air law’. I qualified as a pilot in 1991.
What appeals to you most about ballooning?
The freedom and serenity it gives my passengers and me. One of my passengers fittingly described it as flying on a magic carpet.
Describe a typical working day
We often have two flights a day, just after dawn and then again two hours before sunset, when the air is at its most stable. So in the summer we are out of bed by 4am to greet our passengers by 6am.
After the safety brief and launch preparation we are normally in the air for about an hour. Early morning flights have the edge over evening ones for me – the surface winds are generally calm, so the launches are gentle, and the light is great for photography.
Where we fly is completely governed by the wind speed and direction. We usually fly at between 500 and 2,500 feet, although the maximum height allowed is 10,000 feet. Any higher than that and you would need oxygen. A typical flight is 5-15 miles but the furthest I’ve flown is 25 miles.
Once back on the ground we always celebrate with a glass of champagne. We are then taken back to the launch site in a mini bus.
I then say goodbye to the morning passengers and refuel and check the kit before going back home and having a couple of hours’ sleep. Then we repeat the process in the evening, greeting passengers at around 6pm and getting back home around 10pm.
What’s the camaraderie like among passengers?
When they arrive on launch site some people are cautiously apprehensive, but when we start getting the balloon prepared for flight any nerves soon melt away. Once the flight is over and we are on the ground our passengers are united in their experience of what is one of aviation’s last great adventures. They often exchange contact details to keep in touch in the future.
What’s the most unexpected thing that has happened to you on a flight?
I have had a number of couples get engaged during their flight. It’s quite something to see someone on their knee proposing. Fortunately every one has been a success and I even received a wedding invitation from one of the couples.
What do you do in the winter, when the UK ballooning season ends?
Many of the pilots go abroad to work in places such as Burma and Australia, and return to the UK the following spring. I had a rather less glamorous winter though, looking after our small farm and young children.
About Virgin Balloon Flights
About Virgin Balloon Flights
Virgin Balloon Flights launched in 1994, on the back of the success of Sir Richard Branson’s first balloon flight across the Atlantic in 1987. Famous passengers have included the physicist Stephen Hawking, in a specially adapted basket.
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Virgin Balloon Flights operate from over 100 locations across the UK and carry 30,000 passengers a year, making them the largest balloon rides business in the world.