Hot Air Balloon Pilot Job Description:
As a hot air balloon pilot, my flight date starts two to four days in advance of the scheduled trip. This is because we act as our own weather station. We need to forecast weather as accurately as possible in order for our passengers to either show up and fly or sleep in and reschedule for a better date. The day before our flight, we make the final decision to fly/no fly.
On the evening before the flight, the food is prepared. We have mostly organic and seasonal items, which means they need to be fresh and creative. The morning of the flight, our day begins a couple hours before meeting our passengers. The hot air balloon, equipment and food is loaded in the truck. As the sun peaks its face above the Cascades, it is time to meet with passengers at the designated area.
Then a helium balloon is released into the air for a local wind data decision. If winds are favorable, we travel to one of many landowner friendly fields, launch, and fly into the heavens. After the flight and ceremony, it is time to refuel the balloon system, then get it packed back into its berth and ready for another day. That's kinda what a typical flight would entail.
Can you describe your career path? Did you undergo hot air balloon pilot training?
It's not like you say to yourself, "Crystal, why don't you be a hot air balloon pilot." Things like this just sort of happen. I worked 20 years in "Corporate America" with a plethora of suits in my closet and the Monday through Friday job. When I wanted to take an evening off for classes, my boss (the "big guy" CEO, president, etc.) couldn't afford to have me go.
So, when the chance came to travel the world and help set-up, organize, run, travel, fly, and media coordinate around as an events coordinator and media liaison/spokesperson for PPG/Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and KOOL Team Green, I took it.
I was able to take my associate degree from Portland Community College in Radio/Television Communications and work with the media on Good Morning America, Good Day Detroit, Good Morning Monterey, etc. as we toured the countryside.
It was during the times I promoted volunteers, and my volunteering with community events, that led to a balloon pilot giving me a balloon to learn how to fly. This was his way of saying "Thank you" for my community involvement.
This led to being a balloon pilot (part-time), and eventually to owning my own aviation company with four balloons including an antique for school presentations and a one-person balloon just for kicks.
Can you recall any humorous moments as a hot air balloon pilot?
Every flight is a memory. One of my favorite memories is taking a gentleman by the name of Charlie for his 100th birthday flight. We had two EMTs aboard and a fold up chair since I was told he couldn't stand for more than 10 minutes at a time. He fooled us - Charlie stood the whole hour and his smile was enormous.
When we landed, the field owner welcomed us in his ATV and drove Charlie to the nearest restroom. I still remember Charlie telling me that he had traveled in every mode of transportation and this was his last wish before he was "ready to go home."
He passed away six months later, after a fall that broke his pelvis. I'm glad I could make his wish come true. Once I had a very young couple for a surprise proposal. The young man was soooo nervous. He kept moving about until his girlfriend asked him what was wrong. Of course, he was not ready to "pop" the question, so he avoided her question.
We were coming to the end of the flight, I could see this was not going to happen in the air, so I turned to him and said, "We will be landing in 10 minutes."
"If any of you have any questions, ask now or wait until we are safely on the ground." I guess that was the jump start he needed because on bended knee he quietly proposed to a very excited young woman.
Can you tell us about hot air balloon weddings?
It's virtually the same as getting married on the ground, except you may be at 5,000 feet with the world around you. I have had weddings five feet off the ground and 30 feet off the ground. One with a videographer on board and an officiator. Of course, I officiated a wedding in Prosser.
The weather was too unstable to fly, so we married the couple on Saturday and flew on Sunday, unfurling a 20-foot banner which said "J U S T M A R R I E D" with a pair of white and pink tennis shoes to hold it down. I have noticed that balloon weddings are for those who are getting married for the second time or married later in life.
The younger couples still want to have the church and 200 guests. With a balloon wedding you need to be aware that a really elaborate wedding dress with long train won't necessarily fit in a balloon or be appropriate due to the veil getting caught in the wind and into the burners.
What advice would you give to those seeking a career as a hot air balloon pilot?
Have lots of money to start your business. This is a career that pays you back in good feelings, but not so much in money. The only way to actually come out ahead flying balloons is to have a corporate account with a company who wants a lot of media exposure, traveling, flying, and showing the company colors.
What is your advice on hot air balloon pilot training, enrolling in a hot air balloon pilot school and taking a hot air ballooning exam?
Hot air balloons are like any other aviation company. We must follow the rules set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The normal course of action for a private pilot certificate is 10 hours flight time, ground school, an oral exam by the instructor, then a written exam through the FAA, an oral exam by the FAA, and finally a flight test by the FAA.
In order to fly passengers for hire, you must add on 20+ hours of flight instruction, another written exam, another oral exam by the instructor (if they feel this is necessary), and another FAA oral and flight exam.
In addition, a pilot must have at least 100 hours in the make and model of aircraft in order to get insurance to fly passengers in that make and model of aircraft. When I ran this road 22 years ago, I literally went through the program twice, once with a private instructor and again with a 141 school (there are now three hot air balloon 141 schools left in the U.S.). A 141 school is like a "top gun" school for hot air balloon pilots.
What is the employment outlook for hot air balloon pilots?
Aviation on a whole has taken a downturn since 9/11. This is largely due to airspace being more restricted and insurance rising to a cost triple that pre-9/11. Many large corporate balloon companies are no longer in business due to liability insurance being so high.
And, some areas have expanded the suburbs to the country, which has also cut into landing areas and some smaller balloon companies have found themselves not wanting to bother with the trouble of finding a landing spot.
However, having said all this, we still plan on being in the air. Southwest Washington is a beautiful place to fly and one of the best in the world. The Cascade Range offers five mountain tops seen from a balloon at 2,000 feet, plus the Pacific Ocean at 8,000. What a ride.
What factors can affect the salary of a hot air balloon pilot and cabin crew salaries?
All flights are weather dependent. We book only 50 flights a year. On the years where the weather has been unstable, such as 2007, we have to move our flights to the next season (or next year). I tell our passengers in advance that the weather is the risk. If it is not conducive to flying, then we don't fly.
And, I believe, we are appreciated for that; no risk factors involved with flying with Morning Star Balloon Co. or Captain Crystal. So, when the previous year is not flyable, then those passengers are moved to the next flying season, which affects the amount of flights sold the next season.
As you can see, if you get multiple bad seasons to fly, then you are without funds to operate a hot air balloon program. Remember, you still need to pay for annual inspections, insurance, vehicle insurance, propane, fan gas, and various other expenses, which add up. We are fortunate that our crew is a volunteer-based crew.
We have a simple system: an email goes out the week before the flight and those who want to have fun chasing the balloon are welcome. Our payback? We invite those who volunteer to take a spot in the balloon when one is available. So, they work for a free ride. It is a win-win for all.
We create lasting friendships and form a family unit. It's a great way to get to know someone. And, we love to have new people come and enjoy an expensive sport at no expense to them. This is an early morning sport where you can meet at sunrise, have fun for three hours, then go to work. We just love our job flying balloons.
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