Every balloon pilot that I talked to at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (AIBF) was passionate about the sport – not a surprise right? But passion isn’t going to get you up in the air, flying a hot air balloon. The Federal Aviation Administration requires a pilot’s license, or airman’s certificate, just as you would need for an airplane or any other aircraft.
That license is earned after taking hours of instruction with a balloon pilot instructor, passing an FAA written test, making a solo flight, and passing a flight test with an FAA examiner. Open your check book…plan on spending $2,500 – $5,000 on training to get your license.
That’s a small drop in the basket (hee-hee pun intended) because by now you are probably hooked so you will want a balloon of your own. Of course, you can buy a used one but plan to spend about $25K for a small balloon. Want one of those special shaped, custom-made babies…Now you are really going to spend some serious money, $60K or more.
Because the FAA regulates hot air balloons, if you need to have it repaired, the repair has to be done on a FAA licensed repair machine and you will need to get the balloon inspected annually or after any repair.
I had an opportunity to spend some time with the pilot of The Spirit of 76, Captain Jason Gabriel of Aurora Colorado. Jason has been flying for a number of years and started as crew for other balloon pilots. He loves flying, so evident by his big, infectious grin. As a matter of fact, his entire family loves ballooning too and they all crew for him.
Jason estimates that most balloons have about a 600 hour flytime lifespan. The material, which is often nylon is really thin. The inside of the balloon is coated with wax that helps keep the air in and protect the fabric from the heat that hot air generates when the balloon is inflated. UV breaks down the outside of the material so with the combination of UV and the heat on the inside, the seams eventually give way and the material becomes too thin to hold hot air.
Jason flies The Spirit of 76 about 50 hours a year and also told me it costs roughly $120 an hour to fly – inexpensive, compared to owning a plane or a helicopter is his theory. Jason is an Air Force Captain so clearly he loves being in the air and gets his other flying fixes at work. Thanks Jason for your service and for doing the special demonstration for our Monaco Club Group at AIBF!!!
Some of the special shaped balloons that we saw at the AIBF are corporate owned or sponsored but most balloon pilots in general are hobbyists. Google research revealed that there are careers in hot air ballooning but it is really a niche career path. Still curious about hot air ballooning…here is another link you can follow to read more.
I don’t think either Wally nor I are jonesing to be a balloon pilot but Wally had a ball being an impromptu crew member for Sonrise. It was an exciting morning when she landed right in front of us. I have a great video (thanks Jim for editing) of Wally in action as Sonrise comes in for a landing.