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Hot Air Balloon Operators Are Not Pilots

On our recent African honeymoon, we were pressured into taking a hot air balloon over the Masai Mara.

But Francis, how can you say you were "pressured" into a luxurious experience that so many people would trade their left foot for? There are many people less fortunate than you in this world. You should be more careful with your words. 

Uhm, excuse me? Ha, that—that was… preachy and tiresome. 

Anyway, we hadn't planned to do it originally. We certainly saw it as an option, but we thought it was another unnecessary gimmick among the list of upsells you see at nice spots. Like a horseback ride on the beach in Turks and Caicos, or heli-skiing in Whistler, or even the shaved black truffle addition to the agnolotti at Blue Hill Stone Barns. All wonderful dressings atop the fundamental experience. But MUST-DOS? Eh. 

Heli-skiing in Whistler is, in fact, a must-do. And if you're actually eating at BHSB, you're obviously not deterred by the $95 ding for truffles. But skip the horseback ride.

So we eschewed the balloon. But by day three of our time in Kenya, we were so enamored of the landscape, so taken with the vista, the sights, the smells, the sounds, that the gentlest nudge from a fellow guest—"you're not doing the hot air balloon? Oh, you must. It's magic"—sent us straight to the front desk to book our balloon. Call it a FOMO-prevention tax. And at 4:30AM the next morning, we were bouncing along the darkened pre-dawn dirt road through the bush to the takeoff point. 

The arrival area sure was spooky. Before us lay five deflated balloon carcasses, waiting for their essential juice to find their form and rise to life. Waiting to board their tiny baskets were dozens of eager beavers, ourselves included. With our waivers signed and our safety briefing completely ignored, we clambered into our wicker lifeboat alongside a handful of titillated, caffeinated passengers. 

That's when we met our "pilot." 

His first words: "Did everyone use the bathroom? 'Cuz if not, you'll be going off the side, and that ain't pretty. Nobody likes a brown zebra." 

Ha, man. Nice ice-breaker, you disgusting pig. 

Also, there's something infuriating about hearing "'Cuz" and "Ain't" when you've travelled across the world to Kenya for your once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon. Just a jarring shotgun blast of America that jolted me from my exotic adventure. But I took a few deep breaths and enjoyed the fire on my face. 

I've always loved fire. That shouldn't come as a surprise. I grew up in the woods of Maine. I knew how to make a fire before I knew how to tie my Bean boots. 

But Francis, studies have shown that children who demonstrate an affinity towards flame comprise 94% of adult arson attacks. 

What a stupid statistic. Obviously. Kids who kill birds grow up to kill people. We all know the signs. A + B = C. Who are you? 


As we rose gently above the trees, I was enchanted by the moments between flame bursts. All was quiet. You could hear the snorts and stamps of wildebeest herds below, or the splashing of playful hippos in the river. It felt like we were truly sailing on the wind. Even the stuttering dump from the woman to my left as she hung cheeks and ruined an impala's life somehow had a place in this orchestral salute to the sunrise. 

But then the guy pulling the gas lever started explaining his job. Which was completely unnecessary, because all of us had learned, in just five minutes of watching him, how to do his job. 

"As a pilot," he said, "we're pretty much at the mercy of the wind. I can control up and down but speed, direction, and everything else is dictated by the wind." 

Bad news, old boy: you are not a pilot. 

You're a couple karate belts ahead of a child holding a kite. Compared to your helpless station—your utter vulnerability to nature's will—some Peeping Tom directing a drone towards his neighbor's bathroom window is a goddamn Top Gun ace. 

I couldn't get it out of my head. Mainly because he spent the rest of the ride regaling us with his flying accolades. "I love being a pilot. Most of the other pilots do three days of flying, one day off. But I pretty much fly every day. I just love it. Love being a pilot." 

Buddy, you control up and down. You're an elevator operator. 

I did some digging. To get your private ballooning certificate:

The FAA requires that pilots have a minimum of 10 hours of flight training, which must include 6 flights under the supervision of an instructor, one controlled ascent to 2,000 feet above takeoff point, and two flights with at least 60 minutes in duration. Pilots are also required to make one solo flight. - Seattle Ballooning

10 hours! That sounds like the same track to getting your scuba license in Turks in Caicos. And I can tell you—if I did 10 hours of scuba training and got my license, I wouldn't dare call myself a Navy SEAL. I have too much respect for what they, and pilots, do. 

I'll concede that to become a commercial balloonist takes a bit more:

To be a commercial hot air balloon pilot…You must have 35 hours of flight time (20 being in a hot air balloon), which includes 10 flights with an instructor on the advanced Commercial Pilot areas of operation and one controlled ascent to 3,000 feet above takeoff point.

Alright. 35 hours. Basically, a tough work week in France. After that, you can make money bringing people up in your balloon. The barrier to entry is… thin. So thin that I think I can speak for all pilots when we say: you're not one of us. 

I'm watching you, hot air balloon operators.