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Getting Paid to Fly Balloons

By Jim Whitesell, commercial balloon pilot

Many new balloon pilots dream of turning their hobby into a business. Imagine making a living by flying balloons!

I've been fortunate to have done just that for nearly two decades. I'd like to share some of my experiences and thoughts to help others explore the possibilities of a career as a balloon pilot.

When I first started flying balloons, I started like most, as a private sport pilot.

I lived in Phoenix, Arizona at the time. One of the local radio stations had a hot air balloon and the pilot, Captain Ted, was frequently on the air doing live remotes or promoting the latest station contest. What a great job! Imagine telling people you were a balloon pilot when asked what you do for a living! I wanted that!

Once I started flying, I was surprised how quickly ballooning would become the topic of conversation. People were fascinated. I was usually told one of two things - 'I've always wanted to ride in one', or 'You're crazy! I'd never get in one of those things!' More people wanted to go than those who thought I was off my rocker.

For those who didn't think I was wacko, they saw an opportunity to do something they had only dreamt of. "If you ever need to find someone to go with you, I'll go." was the standard offer. Problem was, I had more willing passengers than room in the balloon. It quickly dawned on me that, friendships aside, there were plenty of people who were willing to pay for a ride.

The next step was to get my commercial rating. As a private pilot in the USA, I was prohibited by regulation to get paid for my flying. I did what many private pilots in the USA do and earned my commercial rating. I was now able to charge for rides!

Most companies offering balloon rides in the USA fly on a part time basis. The pilot/owner has a 'real' job that puts food on the table and then offers balloon flights in his/her spare time. A large percentage of these pilots fly small balloons usually capable of carrying 2 to 4 passengers.

Many balloonists never go beyond this point because they can't earn enough money flying only two passengers at a time to make a living. Even though the income can be small, it works for many pilots as it provides some income to help pay for an otherwise expensive hobby.

Corporate Possibilities

In my quest to become a junior 'Captain Ted', I discovered another way to get paid to fly was to fly corporate advertising balloons. There are a number of companies who use balloons to promote their products or services (see story) and I was very fortunate to have been given an opportunity to fly corporate balloons.

It takes a certain type of person to be successful as a corporate balloon pilot. In addition to being a very safe, skilled pilot, you are also a spokesperson for the client. Marketing and public relations skills are a must. These pilots aren't shy in front of crowds, cameras or boardrooms.

There are many duties a corporate balloon pilot must master and even though the flying can be very rewarding, there are many mundane aspects to the job most won't realize. This isn't the best job choice for you if you don't like living out of a suitcase, don't want to be away from home for extended periods, and don't like Laundromats.

If you do like being the center of attention and can focus on the tasks at hand despite numerous distractions, you may enjoy life as a corporate balloon pilot.

It's a very difficult niche to get into since the companies advertising with balloons want only the most experienced professional pilots. The best way to get started is to get a job as a crew chief with one of the companies flying corporate balloons. You'll spend time on the road and will quickly learn first-hand if this unique job suits you.

Balloon Ride Pilot

The more popular way to make a living as a balloon pilot is by flying rides. While many pilots are happy flying part time in a personal balloon, there is a thriving balloon ride industry in many tourist destinations throughout the world. Flying larger balloons capable of carrying up to 16 passengers, economy of scale makes these ride operations profitable for the company allowing decent pay for pilots and crew.

Being a full time ride pilot also has its unique requirements. Ballooning is seasonal in many locations, so you may be limited to a six or eight month flying season. While some pilots save enough money to live during the off season, others find another location to fly the rest of the year.

As with corporate ballooning, being a responsible, safe pilot is a prerequisite. But in addition to providing safe flights, the pilot is also a tour guide and entertainer. You must love the flying and entertaining your passengers since you'll probably be scheduled to fly seven days a week. Its impossible to schedule personal activities in advance since the only time off will be that caused by bad weather.

Even though there are downsides (like any other career), ballooning can be very rewarding. You'll be outside, meeting new people every day, and best of all you'll be able to fly constantly. And just like Captain Ted you'll be able to tell people you're a balloon pilot and amaze them with tales of derring-do!

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