Floating through the air – who hasn’t dreamed about it... Robert Bessel, Senior Manager Health, Safety & Environment at BMA in Braunschweig since May 2018, has made this dream come true. He has turned his hobby, ballooning, into a small enterprise.
Mr Bessel, when did you decide to become a balloonist?
In the early nineties. I saw a balloon take off and found it fascinating. Through a friend of mine, whose father then worked for the German Federal Aviation Office, I quickly found my way into the ballooning world. At the age of 25, I got my pilot’s licence.
You even set up your own company, AIR-lebnisse, a name that roughly translates into “air experiences”. How long ago was that?
After completing 50 flights, I was allowed to take passengers on board. I initially worked as a freelancer for a number of German and Dutch companies, flying balloons in Europe. They were mostly special-shape balloons, which do not have the typical upside-down drop shape but look like characters or objects, such as a mouse, a penguin, a bottle of coke, or even a phone box. In 2011, I set up my own balloon company, which now owns two hot air balloons.
Do you work on your own?
You could say it’s a small family business. My oldest son is currently training to get his pilot’s licence, and my wife manages the office. We have two additional pilots and twelve so-called retrieve crew, who follow the balloon by car and pack up all the equipment after landing. We all do this alongside our other work, as a hobby.
Can anyone become a balloon pilot?
You have to be at least 16 years old and pass a medical examination, so you need to be fairly fit.
How long does training take and how much does it cost?
You have to complete several training rides at temperatures above 20 °C and below freezing, and pass a written examination, so it takes at least half a year. And it costs between 5,000 and 10,000 euros.
Plus, you have to pay for the balloons…
That’s right. Balloon equipment such as mine will cost you around 65,000 euros and let you carry up to five passengers. Then you need the vehicle and trailer, the inflation equipment, and other things.
How important is the weather for launching a balloon?
It’s vital. You need fair weather with only little wind, and there mustn’t be any danger of precipitation. Weather conditions have changed a lot. Today, we can do about 50 rides in a good year. Ten years ago, that figure was about 100.
How far can you travel in a balloon?
Five to ten kilometres is normal. But there are performance flights, where we have as many gas bottles on board as we need to keep going the whole day. During normal passenger rides, we travel at a speed of up to 10 knots, which is equivalent to a little more than 18 km/h.
Do you ever get situations where you can’t take off?
Sometimes we’ve unpacked everything and are ready to go, but then the weather suddenly makes a take-off impossible. That can happen, for instance, when weather fronts move more quickly than forecast.
Have you ever had passengers fly with you even though they’re afraid of heights?
Yes, that happened to me once. But after a few minutes, I managed to get the lady to look down from the basket. She has since taken several balloon rides and enjoyed them a lot. In her experience, her fear does not manifest itself when she’s in a balloon. You suffer from a fear of heights when you’re on the ground, but not in the air.
What has been your most beautiful experience during a balloon ride?
Every balloon ride is beautiful in itself. Last year, I went to Taiwan to take part in one of the world’s largest ballooning events. It lasted more than ten weeks, and I was there for two of them. Just from a scenic point of view, it was a tremendous experience. I flew across pineapple, banana and mango plantations and experienced the strong scent of all this fruit, even up in the air.
And what has been your funniest experience?
Once, during landing, I had almost reached the ground when the burner started up again. We had to thank a passenger who wanted to “help” for that... The retrieve crew still chuckles today when they remember my face as we suddenly moved upwards again and had to find a new landing spot.
Do you always know exactly where you will end up landing the balloon?
No, only roughly. In ballooning, the journey is your goal. Every time, you will have a different speed and go off in a different direction. That gives you millions of landing options. Taking off from the same place, I’ve never landed in the same spot twice. Every flight is unique.
What advice would you give to people planning their first balloon ride?
Just do it – you’ll be looking at the world differently afterwards.
Thank you for these fascinating insights! Good luck for future flights and with your passengers! Actually, what do you say to a balloonist as they take off?
Gentle breezes and soft landings!