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Learning to Fly 

Have you ever wondered what qualifications are needed to fly a hot air balloon, and how you go about gaining them?

Ballooning can often be thought of as a sport to which only a few lucky people get the opportunity to participate, but this is far from the truth. 

By joining a local club such as the OBC a new member can come along to balloon meets and get to know more about ballooning in general, and maybe help out with rigging, inflating, retrieving and flying with some of the other members of the club. By doing this, you will amass a great deal of knowledge and simple ballooning etiquette, and maybe even the desire to go one further and train for your own pilot’s licence. 

Some trainee pilots 'hook-up' with an existing team and are invited to fly using their equipment, but the majority find it far easier to take the plunge and actually buy their own kit. The cost of a hot air balloon and all the associated equipment can vary depending on exactly what you want and the budget you have, but a rough guide to buy new would be approximately the price of a medium range car, up to the Rolls Royce version with all the extras. Second hand balloons are offered in a wide price range and there are some fabulous balloons on the market ready to snap up, but if considering second hand, ensure you have an independent, experienced pilot on hand to help and advise. Some trainee pilots even club together and form a syndicate sharing the equipment, the crewing and the flying/training time. 

To be allowed to fly balloon in the UK you will need to obtain your Private Pilot’s Licence (Balloons), annotated as PPL(B). This is the minimum licence qualification you must have and it enables you to fly yourself, family and friends. To fly commercially or to fly passengers you will need a Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) which requires a large number of hours logged as a PPL(B) and further, more in-depth, examinations. As a trainee pilot, you are known as a Pu/t, which stands for Pilot under training. 

To obtain your PPL(B), you must complete at least 16 hours of hands-on flying experience within a rolling 24-month period. At least four of these flights must be with a registered Instructor. A list of registered instructors can be found on the British Balloon and Airship Club website ( 

You must also complete other tasks such as attending a Landowner Relations Seminar, passing a medical, and have an instructor ‘sign-off’ in your training log book that you can safely tether a balloon. When an instructor believes that you are trained sufficiently to fly safely and with confidence, he/she will sign your training book with a written recommendation that you can take your General Flight Test (GFT). Once all the boxes are ticked, then a GFT can be arranged with an examiner. If this is successful, you can proceed to a solo flight (providing the Air Law exam has been taken and passed), and once the examiner is fully satisfied of your ability, you will have completed your ‘Check Out’. 

As well as learning the actual flying of the balloon, you will need to study and pass exams in five subjects: 
Air Law
Balloon Systems
Human Performance & Limitations

You can choose whether to sit your exams one at a time or en bloc, and at any stage in your training. Your instructor will probably be the best person to advise on this. However, the final component of the flying element is a solo flight under the watchful eye of an examiner (or an appointed instructor) and this cannot be undertaken without a pass in the Air Law exam. 

After all this hard work, the relevant paperwork and fee is sent off to the Civil Aviation Authority for the issue of your Private Pilot’s Licence (Balloons). Frustratingly, you still cannot fly a balloon without a qualified pilot being with you (despite completing your solo flight) until you have your licence in your hand! Then it is happy flying!


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