THERE’s a shortage of balloonists.
Anyone interested in flying high can learn how to inflate their new career.
Hot air balloon flight operator Wonderdays CEO Matt Jones says that a new generation of pilots is needed to take people to the skies and make their dreams come true.
To find out what it takes to join the fleet, Wokingham.Today sent a reporter to Henley.
On a hillside at dawn, 16 passengers helped pilot Mark Shemilt and crew member Craig to unwrap the giant orange silk balloon that would soon lift them into the air.
Air from two huge fans, and heat from gas jets soon brought it to life.
Phoenix-like it rose from the ground, and the passengers quickly scrambled over the top of the basket into one of four snug compartments.
After drilling them on the safe landing position, pilot Mark Shemilt pulled on a gas jet lever, and the balloon lifted into the air.
Ascent is silent.
There is no swinging, no judder, nothing.
Slightly chilly earlier and with dew-damp feet, the group might have wondered if they were in for a cold and breezy flight.
But the opposite is true.
Ambient heat from the gas jets above, and the fact that the balloon moves at the same speed as the wind, mean that it feels warm in the basket, and the air is completely still.
The landscape on this day was breathtaking, and the group fell silent.
Balloons can rotate very slowly on the breeze, giving 360 degree views and endless photo opportunities.
For many, the ride is a dream come true.
A pilot since 1988, Mark Shemilt, has taken hundreds of people into the air for their experience of a lifetime.
“It began as a hobby,” he said.
“I was working in London, and felt claustrophobic in a job I hated.
“So I took up commercial ballooning in the 1990s, and never looked back.
“It has been so good to me, and I really recommend it both as a hobby, and as a career.”
Flights take place in the UK for around half the year.
“Balloons are temperamental, and trips are weather dependant, but this month we’ve enjoyed good weather, and three weeks of solid flying.
“I’s an unusual sport, but great, great fun.”
Mr Shemilt says that it feels wonderful to to be the person to make dreams come true.
“That’s one of the buzzes I get from doing this, really,” he added.
“It’s such an unusual experience for people, such a one-off.”
Crew member Craig agreed.
“We fly twice a day, every day, and it keeps me fit.
“I love it, every trip is an adventure.
“And most of the farmers whose fields we land in are very friendly and helpful.”
Mr Shemilt continued: “You never know where you are going, you’re at the mercy of the wind, so no two flights are ever the same.
“The wind is predictable at different altitudes and can be used to influence the downwind destination a bit, but you can’t get back to where you’ve come from.”
People often choose to take a balloon trip to mark a special occasion, like a birthday, or an engagement.
“I don’t think you can get married on a balloon,” Mr Shemilt smiled: “you need to have your feet on the ground for that.
“But we do have lots of proposals, including one guy who took his girlfriend on a balloon trip.
“He got his best man to lay out a sheet on the ground below, saying ‘will you marry me?’
“The idea was that the girl would see the message from the air, and he would pop the question.
“But, balloons being balloons, it didn’t fly towards the sheet.
“It took four attempts, with the best man bundling up the sheet and running to the next field to spread it out again, before they eventually flew over it.
“It was very funny, but we got there in the end, and thankfully, she said yes.”
Landing is often the tricky part of any balloon flight, as the pilot seeks a suitable field to land in.
“You have to avoid areas with animals or crops, but we try always to land considerately,” explained Mr Shemilt.
Safely parked on a village sports field on this morning, everyone helped to roll up and pack away the balloon before raising a glass of bubbly.
Passengers Rhys and Erica were celebrating Erica’s birthday.
“I’m actually afraid of heights,” she said, “ but I have loved today, and would definitely do it again.”
Bride-to-be Cherine and her partner Lewis flew two days before their wedding, accompanied by both sets of parents.
“My lovely fiancé bought this trip,” said Cherine.
“The ride has been spectacular, absolutely incredible, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
“The weather has been perfect, and the whole experience was beautiful, with stunning views.
“I recommend it 110%, we’ve all had such a wonderful time.”
Father of the bride John, agreed: “It was a fantastic experience, and well worth it,” he said.
People love the experience, but without new pilots, some may be disappointed.
“We’re an ageing group, and we need some new blood in the sport,” said Mr Shemilt.
“There are some young people taking it up, but not enough, and some of us commercial pilots are getting a bit long in the tooth.”
It takes around three years of training to become a commercial pilot.
“You can get your private pilot’s licence during a good summer,” Mr Shemilt added.
“But that only allows you to fly with friends and family.
“If you want to do it commercially, then you need to put in a few hours and take more exams.
“But it’s a great, great hobby and ticks a lot of boxes.
“You’ve got people, flying, pubs, off-road vehicles, what’s not to like?”
Mr Shemilt says that new pilots need to have lots of common sense and problem solving skills.
“You have to be able to anticipate difficulties before they get out of hand,” he explained.
“And I think you need a bit of diplomacy, because balloons are a bit like Marmite.
“Some people love them, and others hate them when you land in their vicinity.
“You have to respect people’s land and property and make sure you do no damage, and close gates, that sort of thing.”
Wonderdays CEO Matt Jones, said: “Hot air ballooning offers people an incredibly rewarding career choice away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
“But despite people as young as 16 being able to take the controls, costs can be prohibitive, especially when it comes to turning a private licence into a commercial one.
“While our bank of pilots have extraordinary amounts of experience, we really need to start recruiting the next generation of balloon pilots to ensure a seamless transition.”
Wonderdays operates flights from more than 110 locations around the UK, with 55 of those in the South East alone.
The group’s pilots have flown all around the world, even over the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
“Price can be a barrier to entry,” Mr Jones continued.
Obtaining a commercial pilot’s licence can cost between £5,000 and £7,000, although pilots can go on to earn anything up to £60,000 per year.
WonderDays operates a training programme in Italy, where pilots can get expert tuition and fly in near-perfect conditions to amass their hours and experience.
“We’ve been doing this for the last couple of years and it has proved incredibly successful,” continued Mr Jones.
“I’d encourage anyone interested to get involved as a crew member with one of our teams so they can start to build up their knowledge and experience for free.”
Anyone interested getting started as a balloonist should visit: www.wonderdays.co.ukand search for how-to-become-a-hot-air-balloon-pilot
For information about hot air balloon experiences, visit: www.wonderdays.co.uk