Humans have been floating around in balloons for a really long time. Hot air balloons were the first form of human aviation, actually: the first manned flight was in France back in 1783.
In the 20th century, RE/MAX balloons became a ubiquitous sight dotting the skylines of cities across North America. Indeed, RE/MAX contracts are a major source of work for many balloon pilots and ground crews (colloquially known in the business as balloon chasers). That’s how pilot Gary Fehr spent his early career: he started on a ground crew in Calgary in 1995, got his pilot licence in 1997 and worked in Saskatchewan and Manitoba for a few years before returning home to Red Deer, buying his own balloon, and starting his own company: Air-ristocrat Balloon Rides.
“From my perspective, it’s been fairly steady as far as passenger rides go,” Fehr says, noting that he averages between 60 and 70 per year. “What has been in a decline, though, is the number of people who are actually operating balloons. The regulations have changed; they’ve gotten a lot more stringent, so as with any type of thing where the government gets more and more involved, it becomes more costly. A lot of the people who started out in the ’70s and ’80s, they’re starting to lose their medical [insurance coverage] now, and there’s not as many people picking up the sport.”
A lot of his passengers are there to check an item off their bucket list, Fehr explains, often in conjunction with celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and other occasions. He’s also had 34 marriage proposals in his basket over the years—plus another one directed at himself from a fellow on the ground when he was flying in a competition a few years ago—and all of them have said yes. (Except his own proposal, which he declined.)
“Generally the guy will talk to me ahead of time and say, ‘OK this is what I’m planning.’ I tell him, ‘Well buddy, make sure she’s going to say yes before you do this, because if she says no, there’s no place to go,'” he says with a chuckle.
Hot air balloons are very safe for one major reason: they only fly in good weather.
“If it’s not good, we go back to bed,” Fehr says, explaining that he’s flown thousands of passengers and has never injured anyone. “As an aircraft, we’re federally regulated, and we have to be inspected and [have] all the same type of process that jumbo jets have to go through. We’re obviously not the same scale, but we have to follow the same rules.”
Balloons can also fly year-round, even in winter. Fehr notes that winter flying is actually quite nice: most flights are just after sunrise as the air mass is most stable then, so you don’t have to get up nearly as early in the winter as you do in the summer—the air mass is generally more stable in winter anyway. Sometimes there are also temperature inversions in which the air at 1000 feet (the average height Fehr tends to fly at) can be quite a bit warmer than on the surface.
Vertical control is very fine in a balloon: Fehr can control his balloon’s height within inches, and often takes passengers close enough to the tops of trees to “bushwhack” and pluck some leaves as they pass by. You are at the mercy of the winds as far as horizontal direction goes, hence the need for a ground crew to follow along underneath to the eventual landing site—which can’t be fully determined before going up, but can be predicted by sending up a small helium balloon to check the upper winds prior to taking flight.
Balloon rides aren’t cheap: Fehr charges $250 per person, and notes that he’s on the lower end of the average pricing scale. But it’s expensive to operate a balloon, plus it’s not something that most people are likely doing very often, if ever more than once. There’s really no true comparison, though, Fehr explains. He likens the experience to being somewhat like a boat on on a lake, where you can see and hear for miles in any direction—only, you know, way up in the sky.
And for those who say they are too afraid of heights to ride in a hot air balloon?
“If you can fly in a plane then you’re not afraid of heights—you’re afraid of falling,” Fehr says. “There’s a big difference between the two. I hate going up on step ladders, but I have no problem at all being in a balloon at 11 000 feet. There’s no sensation of looking over the side of a building; there’s no vertigo; we don’t go through any turbulence, so we’re not bouncing around up and down up there or anything like that. It’s very stable.
“A lot of people will say that it feels like you’re sitting still and the world is turning underneath you, because when you’re going with the wind, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re going, you don’t feel a breeze,” he continues. “So there’s really very little sensation of moving.”
Air-ristocrat Balloon Rides