Tales on a bal­loon with a ‘ma­cho nut­case’ pi­lot

If you haven’t done this so far, you must. Book a ‘flight’ to bound over the desert early in the morn­ing. With any luck, you too might get the com­pany of a jovial Kiwi pi­lot whose sto­ries you can’t for­get

Khaleej Times - - FRONT PAGE - kelly@khalee­j­times.com Kelly cov­ers ed­u­ca­tion. She likes it that peo­ple call her Kel Kelly Clarke

The hot air bal­loon’s rocky start was soon over­shad­owed by the silent tran­quil­ity as we slowly as­cended over the golden sands be­low

Avet. That was al­ways the ex­cited re­ply I’d blurt out as a kid when­ever I was asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In my naïve lit­tle mind, I had dreamy vi­sions of cud­dling cute an­i­mals all day long. There was never any hes­i­ta­tion in my an­swer. Then, as my teenage years hit, I soon re­alised it was more a case of blood, guts and seven years of vet school to get there. So, pretty quickly, I changed my mind.

For pi­lot Peter Kol­lar though, it was more a case of con­ve­nience than child­hood dream that saw him take to the skies. And when I say pi­lot, I’m not talk­ing cock­pit, wings or 777s. His of­fice is a wicker bas­ket in the sky by way of hot air bal­loon.

It was dur­ing one of his flights last week­end — mid-air in that very bas­ket — when I met Peter.

Our meet­ing place: the mid­dle of the desert; our meet­ing time: some un­godly hour of the morn­ing. See, desert meets at the crack of dawn are the norm if you go hot air bal­loon­ing.

All ready to jump aboard the bas­ket on Peter’s cue, Mother Na­ture marred our ini­tial in­ter­ac­tion that morn­ing. As the wind beat down around us, Peter and his team fu­ri­ously bat­tled to fill the bal­loon’s en­ve­lope for lift-off.

Sway­ing from side to side, the bas­ket bounced back and forth along the desert floor, as the roar from the gas can­is­ter bel­lowed out from above. Then came the or­ders: “Get in the bas­ket now. Quick, quick,” and one-by-one, all 24 pas­sen­gers — me in­cluded — hur­riedly cat­a­pulted into the hot air bal­loon — bas­ket still sway­ing with the wind.

Thank­fully, that rocky start was soon over­shad­owed by the silent tran­quil­ity as we slowly as­cended over the golden sands be­low.

“Not all morn­ings start like this. If they did, I’d have a lot more grey hairs,” Peter joked. It was the per­fect in­tro­duc­tion; calm­ing and hu­mor­ous. As we slowly at­tempted to climb to 4,000ft, two bal­loons above — manned by Peter’s co-pi­lots — halted our ini­tial as­cent.

“Let me know when I’m clear to climb,” he said into his ra­dio, be­fore turn­ing to us with a smirk on his face. “This is why I don’t do bal­loon fes­ti­vals. It’s like a bunch of Sun­day driv­ers up there.”

In Peter’s 26-year bal­loon­ing ca­reer, he has bagged him­self more than 3,500 flights. And if there’s one thing you need to know about this man, it’s that his per­son­al­ity is every bit as unique as his pro­fes­sion; one he says he fell into by chance.

It was 1990. Af­ter open­ing an ad­ven­ture tours com­pany in Christchurch, New Zea­land, the fruits of his labour turned out to be pretty lu­cra­tive; so much so, he de­cided to add hot air bal­loon­ing to the portfolio. But there was only one prob­lem. “No one knew about hot air bal­loons. There wasn’t a sin­gle pi­lot avail­able in the whole of NZ at that time.”

The log­i­cal thing to do was buy a bal­loon and ‘im­port’ a pi­lot from Eng­land. But again, he came up short. That pi­lot he nabbed from over­seas gave him some ad­vice; and it was that ad­vice which changed his whole ca­reer path. “He ba­si­cally told me that most bal­loon pi­lots are ma­cho nut­cases and al­most im­pos­si­ble to man­age.”

And that was enough to put him off. He knew his new venture would only work if he manned the bal­loon him­self. So, within a year, Peter se­cured his very own com­mer­cial pi­lot li­cence; all while avoid­ing the la­bel of ‘ma­cho nut­case’. As a sea­soned moun­taineer at the time, that first solo flight on board a gi­ant bal­loon was “pretty tame” com­pared to an af­ter­noon of ice climb­ing. “But be­ing in con­trol of an air­craft — or just be­ing in con­trol, full stop — was nat­u­rally ex­cit­ing,” he said.

As with all pi­lots, he now has plenty of sto­ries to tell — “ex­pe­ri­ences of the weird and won­der­ful”.

Cu­ri­ous by his ad­mis­sion, I, of course, had to delve deeper. For­get the won­der­ful, I wanted to hear all about the weird. But I was quickly warned: “You don’t want to know.”

That piqued my cu­rios­ity even more. So I prod­ded. “It hap­pened in Ger­many and I don’t think it’s some­thing you’d want to put in print! Suf­fice it to say, it was a young cou­ple. I think you can imag­ine the rest.” And imag­ine I did.

As for the hairi­est mo­ments, he was a lit­tle more will­ing. It was the story of a fly­ing stint in Italy when the air de­cided to go awol, mid-flight, that sprung to mind. “I was fly­ing in Italy and I com­pletely ran out of wind.” While hov­er­ing over forests and olive groves, panic soon be­gan to set in; he was low on fuel.

“I had to choose the lesser of the two evils and de­cided to land be­tween rows of olive trees.” All well and good, in the­ory, he said. But with a bal­loon mea­sur­ing 35-me­tres in cir­cum­fer­ence, that re­quired a lot of room for land­ing; room he just did not have.

“Luck­ily, as I slowly drifted above the for­est to­wards the olive trees, I spot­ted a camp of refugees at the edge of the for­est. They were all watch­ing the bal­loon prob­a­bly think­ing ‘what the heck is this guy go­ing to do?’” Shout­ing down from the bas­ket, Peter or­dered each one of them to get on top of an olive tree. And they each shot up one like a rocket, with­out a sec­ond of hes­i­ta­tion. “Now I had a row of Nige­rian guys each bal­anc­ing atop an olive tree, one left, one right.” As the bal­loon de­flated down, they were able to push it into the empty row, sav­ing both him and the bal­loon in the process. “I of­fered to pay them for their help, but they wouldn’t ac­cept,” he said. “They told me: ‘come back any time’, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them, ‘I don’t think so’.” Like I said, Peter is every bit as unique as the bal­loon he flies. So if you do find your­self at a loose end one week­end, I urge you, take a flight with this man; you won’t be left dis­ap­pointed.

Pho­tos by Les­lie Pableo

CAP­TAIN QUICK: Peter Kol­lar pre­par­ing the bal­loon just be­fore dawn to fly with the help of his crew. —

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