By Phil Buckley, Photos supplied by Grant McHerron


How did you become involved with the aviation industry and flying, and at what age?

I’ve been an aviation tragic for pretty much all my life. My father is ex-Royal New Zealand Air Force so I grew up with aviation around me at an early age. Even after he left the RNZAF we still had friends and family members in and Dad’s always been keen on aircraft, thus we were often referring to it. At various points it has been in and out of my life but I’ve always looked up when I hear an aircraft.


How did you find learning to fly balloons – going through the stages of gaining your licenses and approvals – was it easy or challenging for you?

The hardest part was getting the time for it. I had a go at my fixed wing license and aside from needing a bit of money, you just went down to the airport and went flying. It was certainly a lot easier than ballooning which requires that we go into the countryside (no flying over the city), arrange accommodation, organise crew to chase us during the flight, a balloon, a vehicle to tow it on the ground, the trailer, fuel, etc and an instructor. I cut a deal with the commercial ballooning company I work for to offset the cost of my license against work I did. Given my instructors were also commercial pilots and I was flat out working, it was rather hard to align the weather, locations, availability and all the usual ballooning related issues mentioned above. Fortunately the Australian Ballooning Federation has a training camp every two years near Mildura, so between two of those sessions and some flying in Benalla, I managed to get enough experience up that I could get my solo flights in then do my check-ride and pass my PPL (Balloons).


What do you find the most enjoyable aspect about flying or floating as a balloon pilot?

Aside from the burners going on, it’s incredibly peaceful and graceful way of flying. It can be relaxing with great views and a lot of fun. It’s also a great challenge to read the winds both before and during the flight to predict where you’re going to be and, if possible, have some control over where you wind up (that is if you read and ride the winds correctly).


What is your most memorable flight experience that you would like to share?

There have been so many! First flights with family members come to mind and taking friends for a flight. Skimming low over fields or going up to over 8,000′ and enjoying the view. Perhaps the most magic experience though was my first flight after getting my PPL (Balloons). It had been a few months and I was flying alongside one of our newly minted commercial pilots who was taking a few people for a flight. We launched near Bendigo on a crisp, clear morning with light winds and some mist about. It was fantastic to be in the air on my own as PIC and really enjoying the challenge of staying close to the other balloon while also enjoying the views.


What skill have you gained from ballooning that you may not have gained, if you had not taken it up?

Aside from patience, compared to other forms of flight I have a great appreciation for the winds and flying without motors or thermals – a much greater appreciation of weather patterns, micro conditions and early mornings. I can’t just go where-ever I want in the air and there’s a great challenge to reach one or more target points solely by changing altitude to get winds heading in different directions (if there are any) .

Mankind’s first form of sustained human flight was via hot air balloon and while a lot of technology has changed since 1783, the way we fly is very similar (eg: changing altitude to get different directions). It’s majestic, peaceful and a lot of fun. Learning to fly a balloon has been very rewarding and I’m continuously challenging myself to improve as I gain more experience. I also like showing fixed wing pilots how we can navigate to various targets despite not having a propeller out the front….

First Flight

What is your most favourite balloon type to pilot and why?

As a private balloon pilot I can fly balloons up to 120,000 cubic foot capacity (air within the envelope), generally referred to as a 120. The balloons you see over the city of Melbourne are typically 240s while out in the country areas you’ll find 300s, 350s and even up to 450s. Most of my training was done on a 77 so I’m very comfortable with a balloon of that size. Typically a 77 will carry a pilot + 1 or 2 pax (depending on fuel load, pilot and pax weight, ambient temperature, etc) while a 105 balloon will carry a pilot plus 2 or 3 pax (again depending on fuel, weights, etc). I’m just starting to fly a 105 balloon and am getting the hang of it as a bigger balloon has more inertia and takes a bit longer to respond to putting heat in or venting some heat. To put it in aircraft terms, a 105 is like a Cessna 206, while the 77 is like a Cessna 172 or Piper Warrior, so there’s a bit of transition as you get used to how the bigger balloon handles.  Officially I can just get in a 105 balloon and fly it but I’ve chosen to do a couple of flights with an experienced pilot on board who can give me pointers and let me know if I’m doing something that could cause problems. So far, so good and the other pilot has been along to enjoy the ride as its very similar behaviour. I intend to do the same thing when I go to the 120 which is bigger again and can usually carry pilot + 3 or 4 pax. So far I have the most fun with a 77 but I’m getting the hang of the 105 and think I’ll probably fly balloons of that size more often as it means I can take a couple of friends with me to enjoy the flight rather than just one.


What got you interested in flying a balloon over an aircraft or helicopter?

I’d had a few goes at my fixed wing license but as usual, life got in the way and I have not had a chance to complete it. Helicopter was exciting but super expensive and I doubted I would have the money for that, so I wound up working for a commercial hot air balloon company and really enjoyed going up with the other pilots, flying over Melbourne or the Yarra Valley. From there it was only natural to work with the instructor pilots and the company owner to figure out a way to get my license.


What are your views of the current aviation industry in Australia? Can it expand further perhaps bringing more people into the industry?

There’s a lot of opportunity in aviation here but not a lot of people taking it up, either due to lack of awareness or the perceived high cost to entry. There’s certainly lots of room for more pilots in Australia and Sport Aviation is a great way to get into it, be it ballooning, gliding, ultralights, hang gliders, RA-Aus, etc. GA is there if you want to get into bigger fixed wing operations or helicopters but if all you want to do is get some altitude, there are lots of opportunities. Start out with the sport flying and progress upwards from there if you have bigger or more professional aspirations.


How could AOPA and the aviation industry help attract more people to become interested in ballooning or flying

I think the biggest hurdle that the Australian aviation community as a whole has to deal with, is the closed shop mentality that is often encounted when first approaching many within the community, both for the general public and even other flyers. Far too many fixed wing people look down at ballooning with a negative opinion, while within the gliding community you often have the “purists” vs those who have motors on board. Many commercial pilots look down on the RA-Aus pilots, while some in RA-Aus look down on hang glider flyers. The sooner we can change these negative attitudes the better, as if we can not acknowledge that we are all aviators, how can we   openly embrace those who are not yet pilots and help them try it out and help them find their niche in aviation. If every pilot took a new person up for a flight every month or two, we’d be introducing lots of new potential pilots to the game. Sure, flying’s not for everyone but the more people who realise how fun and interesting it is, the more potential pilots we get and perhaps even sway a few people who might otherwise think airports are noisy and annoying places that should be closed down.

AOPA is doing a great job once again to help spread the word and the Affiliate membership helps bring in those of us associated with the sport clubs. After all, were pilots so whether we’re with the gliders or the balloons or RA-Aus, we should all be members of AOPA to help present a united voice when government and commercial changes would impact aviation. While not every change directly impacts each persons slice of the aviation world, eventually one will so it’s important to help protect all of us. Meanwhile, ask yourselves, what have you done to help introduce others to aviation?


Do you find the regulations and rules imposed on flying a factor in deciding if you want to fly?

Yes and no. It keeps me favouring RA-Aus over GA for my fixed wing at this stage, if I ever get the funds to return to that license. If rules are a major issue then staying down the smaller, simpler end of aviation is the way to go. With ballooning we certainly do have to pass exams on air law and have regulations on where and how we can fly and how we integrate with other aviators. Of course, we also have exams on meteorology, navigation, radio operation, aerodynamics and operation of balloons and land-holder relations (the latter is important when you consider that we don’t usually operate at airports. The biggest issues keeping me are on the ground are: A) Time, Money and Weather (common to all aviators) B) Being able to arrange a balloon with crew and vehicle plus have somewhere in the country to stay. Regulations and rules are considered before flying (like any aviator, we don’t want to break the rules) but they don’t make me think “Why bother flying?”


What goals have you got for the future with your aviation interests?

I’d like to progress towards holding a Commercial hot air balloon license and do more flying for a living. I’d also like to progress through a number of other licenses included gliding, gyrocopter and RA-Aus fixed wing (after which a floating-hull endorsement would have to be on the cards). I love all forms of aviation and would love to try hang gliding and parachuting at least once each. I really enjoy doing aerobatics with friends (even when my stomach occasionally lets me down and have long drooled over antique biplanes. Hopefully one day I’ll have the funds and time available to partake of all of them.