Secrets of a hot air balloon pilot

Secrets of a hot air balloon pilot

From Myanmar to Marrakech, a globe-trotting hot air balloon guide shares his experiences and addresses ballooning safety issues
Balloons Over Bagan carries tourists above the pagodas at dawn in Myanmar's ancient city of Bagan.

Google "Bagan" and one of the first images you’ll see is a red and gold hot air balloon, floating in the dawn light above curls of mist over a plain of ancient Buddhist temples.

Only seven men and women fly that balloon.

They're hired each high season (October through March) by Balloons Over Bagan, a stylish operation in central Myanmar that's routinely featured at the top of travelers’ must-do lists.

Ian Martin is one of those pilots. His dedication to ballooning led him to set up his own aerial display company, Flying Enterprises, in the UK in 1997.

“Some flights you remember forever,” says globetrotting balloon guide Ian Martin. Today, Martin works with clients worldwide to market and advertise their brands using hot air balloons.

"It's the biggest billboard you could achieve,” he says. “People always remember a balloon, because it’s unusual.”

As well as running his business, Martin conducts sunrise flights for tourists over some of the world’s most amazing landscapes.

“There are a lot of opportunities as a balloon pilot, because there aren’t a massive number of us,” he says.

Bagan, Tuscany and Marrakech are the main three places he flies.

Martin also helps set up ballooning companies around the world, and is working on new projects in Kenya and Panama, where he says one flight may begin at the mouth of an extinct volcano.

Before embarking on his ballooning career, Martin worked in construction. He was drawn to ballooning “by accident,” when a supplier offered him a free flight. 

From there, it became a hobby, then a part of his life.

He obtained his balloon pilot’s license 20 years ago and joined Richard Branson’s "Global Challenger" team in the late 1990s. 

The Virgin mogul aimed to fly around the world in a balloon.

“We almost got there,” Martin says, with regret in his voice. 

Egypt crash raises safety concerns

A hot air balloon over Luxor in April. Balloon flights resumed there nearly two months after an accident killed 19 tourists. Until recently, Egypt’s Valley of the Kings was another well-regarded destination for ballooning. That changed in February when a deadly balloon crash killed 19. 

Several other incidents this year have thrown the safety of ballooning into question.

In May, a hot air balloon flying over central Turkey fell to the ground after colliding with another, killing two Brazilian tourists. Last weekend, at least five people were reportedly injured in four separate hot air balloon crashes caused by high winds. 

Although Martin admits accidents are bound to happen, he insists that ballooning is the safest form of aviation.

“Safety concerns tend to come up primarily around fuel, the propane and hoses that we use,” he explains. 

“It’s crucial to prevent leaks that may lead to fires. The second area is to try and limit pilot error. That is, to keep the pilots well briefed, well trained and up to date with any changes [or advancements] in equipment.”

It's not possible to steer a balloon in the conventional sense.

Instead, pilots rely on the speed and direction of winds at different heights for navigation and control. To be licensed, they must take an exam that covers meteorology, among other things.

More on CNN: How safe is hot air ballooning? 

Chasing summer

“To be a balloon pilot, you have to be a showman," says Ian Martin, here in the center of a group of tourists in Bagan, Myanmar. The success of a flight is so dependent on weather that business in the UK tends to be restricted to the summer months. 

Martin’s annual stint in Myanmar is a way to earn winter income and to chase the sun, he says.

The British pilot normally stays in Bagan for three or four months each year; he's been working here since 2005.

Martin says he loves the country and people, who "have a very good sense of humor."

Recent changes he's seen in Myanmar are huge, and he worries that the country won't remain unspoiled forever.

“It’s nice to see the people having a friendlier outlook without fear in the back of their minds all the time,” Martin says of the country’s much publicized opening up.

But he observes that greed has started to seep in. For example, he says hotels rooms are often more expensive than they're worth.

More on CNN: Myanmar hit by severe hotel shortage

“I hope that as the country continues to develop, it does so in a way that's not too commercial,” he says. 

Martin’s affinity with the locals who handle the balloons in Bagan was evident during a flight with him earlier this year. He often shared jokes with his man on the ground, who followed the flight in a truck to ensure a safe landing and brought a team to help pack away the balloon. 

Martin is a natural entertainer.

“To be a balloon pilot, you have to be a showman," he says, adding that it's important to build a rapport with passengers, because it means that every flight is different.

“You could meet somebody who is, if you like, a road sweeper, right the way up to a doctor, professor or even royalty ... and that’s quite rewarding."

On one of his favorite journeys, Martin flew a princess across the Irrawaddy River and landed on a sandbank among local villagers.

“Some flights,” he says, “you remember forever.” 

More on CNN: 11 things to know before visiting Myanmar



Samantha Leese is a Hong Kong based writer and editor, focusing on travel, arts and culture. Her articles have been published internationally by titles such as Condé Nast Traveller, The Spectator, Artforum and Time.

Read more about Samantha Leese