FLOAT­ING HIGH ABOVE IT ALL

QT Magazine - - COVER STORY - SHAN­NON NEWLEY

WITH fewer than 70 com­mer­cial bal­loon pi­lots in Aus­tralia, it’s not the kind of job you’ll see listed the pages of a classifieds.

But for Float­ing Im­ages’ owner Graeme Day and his fam­ily, wak­ing early to gauge the weather, driv­ing to a park or field, un­load­ing hun­dreds of ki­los worth of equip­ment and fir­ing up gas cylin­ders, is all in a morn­ing’s work.

That work takes the Days and their pas­sen­gers to the skies, as Graeme nav­i­gates over the coun­try­side sur­round­ing Ip­swich, the Scenic Rim and Somerset re­gions.

“When I went to school I never dreamed I was go­ing to be a bal­loon pi­lot. It was at the in the right place and the wrong time,” Graeme laughs.

“But for a lot of peo­ple that does hap­pen, cir­cum­stances do lead you to do­ing things that you didn’t think you would be do­ing.”

Float­ing Im­ages’ cur­rent yel­low and blue Dis­cover Ip­swich bal­loon en­ve­lope might now be a fa­mil­iar sight af­ter be­ing launched ear­lier this year, but it was in skies across the world Graeme honed his pi­lot­ing skills. That jour­ney though, did start close to home. Graeme stud­ied an As­so­ciate Diploma of Agri­cul­ture at Gat­ton. And back then in the 1980s, he had no idea how much that study would help pave the way for his fu­ture ca­reer as a hot air bal­loon pi­lot and play an in­te­gral role it in.

His sense of ad­ven­ture took him abroad and he used his knowl­edge of agri­cul­ture to gain work, but pi­lot­ing a hot air bal­loon was still a few years in the fu­ture.

“I still be­lieve when you travel to a coun­try you have to travel to heart of the coun­try and the heart of any coun­try is its agri­cul­ture. Be­cause that’s where it’s cul­tural, it’s so­cial, its eco­nom­ics are and the feel­ings are,” he says.

“You go to a city… it’s a bloody big city and you don’t get to find the open­ing arms and hearts of peo­ple.

“That’s what I did. I worked in the coun­try ar­eas. Farm­ing in Canada, land­scap­ing in Canada and the same in Europe.”

Fol­low­ing his fam­ily her­itage, Graeme ended up in Scot­land. Here, he made friends with a fel­low trav­eller who in­vited him to visit her so he em­barked on an­other jour­ney through France and Ger­many.

“A friend of hers had a bal­loon com­pany and they rung up and asked if he wanted to help the crew and we did,” he says.

“It was a beau­ti­ful win­ter’s day.

“I worked for that com­pany for six months as crew and in that time there were dis­cus­sions; they needed an­other pi­lot.”

Graeme, who was working on a Bri­tish pass­port, was asked to train as a pi­lot, as long as he hung around to

work for the com­pany.

“I was ac­tu­ally trained by a French tax of­fice train­ing scheme where they try to get peo­ple from a lower in­come to a higher in­come so they can get more tax,” he says.

“I was the first person in France to be trained as a bal­loon pi­lot un­der that process.”

Though not yet on the scene, this chal­lenge is not lost on Graeme’s now wife Ruth.

“He didn’t know a word of French by the way so when he did his bal­loon­ing train­ing in French he had to learn French to do it so he had the man­u­als with the French-English dic­tio­nary be­side it,” she says.

And it was a chal­lenge for Graeme, de­spite his sense of ad­ven­ture and ex­pe­ri­ence trav­el­ling.

“I could do two or three words, dic­tio­nary, two or three words, dic­tio­nary,” he says.

He spent six years pi­lot­ing bal­loons through the skies above France.

“Spring, sum­mer and au­tumn in Al­sace but in win­ter­time we used to do flights over the French Alps and they were three to five-hour flights some­times,” Graeme says.

“I knew that I could I could make a busi­ness out of this. I saw other peo­ple do­ing it.”

So he started his jour­ney home.

“I came back home in 1996. I was sup­posed to work for a Bris­bane bal­loon com­pany but they got closed down by Civil Avi­a­tion Safety Au­thor­ity,” he says.

But Graeme was al­ready fly­ing over the Great Bar­rier Reef by the time he found out.

“I had faxed and emailed these guys say­ing ‘look I am com­ing so if there’s any prob­lems just tell me and I’ll stay here’,” he says.

“So af­ter a 22,000km jour­ney I wasn’t too im­pressed. “I worked for them as crew once they got their li­cence and re­quire­ments back but I went back to France for an­other sea­son.”

This time his trip home was for good, set­tling on the Gold Coast for about three years.

“And then Ruth and I got in­volved,” he says.

Ruth worked in mar­ket­ing, in­clud­ing high-pro­file events like World Expo ’88, be­fore mov­ing in to fundrais­ing where Graeme’s mother was among her staff.

Graeme was put­ting to­gether mar­ket­ing pro­posal for the Syd­ney Olympics in­volv­ing bal­loons.

He ❛❛ didn’t know a word of French by the way so when he did his bal­loon­ing train­ing in French he had to learn French to do it so he had the man­u­als with the French-English dic­tio­nary be­side it.

“(Graeme’s mother) thought I could help Graeme given my back­ground of World Expo ’88 to put his pro­posal to­gether to ap­proach the Syd­ney Olympics,” Ruth says.

“And I fobbed him off from ’96 all the way through to Jan­uary 1997.

“Be­cause I was so busy with work it was pretty hard for him to get hold of me so even­tu­ally caught up Aus­tralia Day 1997. And I sat down with him and we went through ev­ery­thing he had done so that’s how we met.”

Hot air bal­loon rides are reg­u­larly used to or­ches­trate and cel­e­brate ro­man­tic en­coun­ters, so it’s no won­der Graeme would at­tempt to use his job to get the girl. There was just one prob­lem.

Ruth’s fear of heights.

“Graeme was also working at that time down at the Gold Coast not only as a pi­lot, also worked as a pi­lot at the bal­loon walk down at Robina and I went down with the girl­friend to Robina for a bit of re­tail ther­apy,” Ruth says.

“Graeme hap­pened to be on shift that day and dragged me on un­der false pre­tences to show me what it was like and I didn’t en­joy it one bit.”

While she may not have en­joyed the heights of that day, she en­joyed the com­pany.

They even­tu­ally mar­ried and added twins Matthew and Kait­lyn to the fam­ily right about the time Float­ing Im­ages took its maiden flight over Ip­swich.

“The first of De­cem­ber 2001. Six weeks be­fore the twins were born,” Ruth said.

Float­ing above the ground in a hot air bal­loon may not be for Ruth, but her ex­per­tise in mar­ket­ing meant her a Graeme made a per­fect busi­ness pair­ing.

And while that maiden flight was out of the ques­tion due to the preg­nancy, Ruth oc­ca­sion­ally bat­tles her fear to take a trip in the bal­loon.

“I still have a rev­er­ence for the ground how­ever when I talk to peo­ple who in­quire that they have a fear of heights or my wife or my hus­band or daugh­ter or what­ever fam­ily mem­ber is afraid of heights, well I say I can iden­tify with that,” she says.

“And I tell them how I can over­come it.

“I choose not to look down over the edge but I can look out.

“Graeme is the one that does the height thing and pi­lot and the op­er­a­tional thing and I am in the of­fice and I am quite happy to be in the of­fice.

“But then again I’ll go out in to the field as re­quired to do the PR and mar­ket­ing side of the things. I don’t crew.

“I mar­ried into bal­loon­ing but thank­fully there are two sides to the op­er­a­tion of the busi­ness. ”

Twins Kait­lyn and Matthew have been in­volved in the phys­i­cal side of the busi­ness since they were two-years-old.

At first help­ing with trail­ers and clean­ing up af­ter flights, to be­ing a part of the ground crew.

Fly­ing in a hot air bal­loon is a gen­tle ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s smooth and silent yet thrilling at the same time. Like the busi­ness name sug­gests, you feel like you are float­ing. And while pas­sen­gers may take this calm, yet awe-in­spir­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, as a sign of ease, be­hind the scenes Graeme is tak­ing in the weather and the sur­rounds to en­sure the high­est safety stan­dards.

“We have a check list. Also op­er­at­ing the air­craft, as well as fuel man­age­ment, you’re re­view­ing and mak­ing sure the winds are working with you in that as­pect as well as pas­sen­ger com­fort safety and en­joy­ment,” he

says. “And com­men­tary, there’s so many as­pects to it lot of peo­ple go this looks easy and you ex­plain it and they say ‘no, that’s no easy, you just make it easy’,” Graeme says.

“We have lim­i­ta­tions; as a tour op­er­a­tor avi­a­tion we have an op­er­a­tion man­ual on how to run our busi­ness. And that’s reg­u­lated by CASA. Whereas most tourism op­er­a­tors don’t even have an op­er­a­tions man­ual.”

The re­quire­ments to run a busi­ness in­volv­ing an air­craft are ex­ten­sive, from the train­ing to the day-to-day op­er­a­tions.

“We even have to have a fa­tigue man­age­ment man­ual, drug and al­co­hol man­age­ment plan, all re­quire­ments un­der any avi­a­tion busi­ness,” Ruth says.

“There’s not a lot of busi­nesses out­side of the avi­a­tion in­dus­try have to have that, not even a doc­tor has to have a fa­tigue man­age­ment plan.

“They should, but they don’t.

“It en­sures that you have the high­est safety stan­dards that you can pos­si­bly have and that you al­ways have your pas­sen­gers’ safety com­ing first.”

The strin­gent prac­tices and de­sire for all of their guests to truly en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence mean the Days won’t fly some­one un­der the age of six-years-old but they have flown peo­ple aged seven to 98.

“Peo­ple are nor­mally do­ing bal­loon flights be­cause it’s a cel­e­bra­tion of life. Be it a birth­day, an­niver­sary, wed­ding or pro­posal.

“We had a run of it at the end last year and we are still hav­ing it of 80-year-olds want­ing to go on a bal­loon flight. I guess one of the benefits of do­ing it with us, we do the bou­tique bal­loon­ing, we do smaller num­bers more in­land and it’s a pro­tected area and Graeme can fo­cus on that group of peo­ple,” Ruth says.

“Peo­ple want to cel­e­brate some as­pect of their life through some­thing special and bal­loon­ing is con­sid­ered as one of those mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ences that they want to tick off their bucket list. It’s their life ex­pe­ri­ences list.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing peo­ple are mov­ing away from that ma­te­ri­al­is­tic gifts to­wards ex­pe­ri­ence gifts.”

“There’s been a range, from the joys of wed­dings and pro­pos­als all the way to the other end of the scale where we have peo­ple who are cel­e­brat­ing life be­cause they are go­ing to pass away be­cause they are ter­mi­nally ill,” Graeme says.

“When you have 18-year-old girls who are ter­mi­nally ill, it’s sad but you know you have given the gift of joy and that’s a part of bal­loon­ing for me. You can’t put a value on it.”

With only about 20 com­mer­cial hot air bal­loon­ing op­er­a­tions in Aus­tralia, the Days hope Float­ing Im­ages can con­tinue to bring tourists to the city, and boost the wider econ­omy.

“We’re look­ing at the next five years and the fu­ture. I’m cur­rently learn­ing Chi­nese at the Univer­sity of Queens­land in Bris­bane be­cause of the Chi­nese mar­ket,” Graeme says.

“We are so close to Bris­bane, we are hop­ing to dou­ble our pas­sen­ger ca­pac­ity.

“That’s good thing for Ip­swich be­cause not only do peo­ple see the pos­i­tive and beau­ti­ful side of Ip­swich it brings a lot of money in to the city.

“One in four of our pas­sen­gers stay over in Ip­swich. So if they stay over in Ip­swich, they eat in Ip­swich that night, do ac­com­mo­da­tion in Ip­swich.”

PHOTO: ROB WIL­LIAMS

HIGH LIFE: Ip­swich busi­ness Float­ing Im­ages Hot Air Bal­loon caters for special oc­ca­sions in life.

PHOTO: ROB WIL­LIAMS

SPEC­TAC­U­LAR: High above Ip­swich in a hot air bal­loon, you can see sun rise over the Bris­bane CBD.

PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

Ruth and Graeme with their chil­dren Kait­lyn and Matthew, who turn 16 this year.

PHOTO: ROB WIL­LIAMS

Spy­ing on some of the lo­cal res­i­dents from above

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