We drive down lonely roads as the city sleeps, watching the sky turn warm tones of blue and pink. Turning towards the desert and, as the sun prepares to rise, our hot air balloon adventure awaits as colourful hot air balloons come to life amid the backdrop of picture-perfect sand dunes.
As we wait to board our hot air balloon with Balloon Adventures Emirates, the mammoth aircrafts are inflated using hot air from strategically maneuvered propane burners. While all the passengers are given a detailed briefing on what to expect, nothing quite prepares us for the excitement in store. The early morning start is more than worth it. In a matter of minutes, passengers are filing into the basket from the left and right and the balloon adventure slowly takes off. This is the moment everyone has been waiting for – soaring higher and higher as great swathes of desert dunes come into view creating a dramatic setting. It’s a scene that captain Peter Kollar, a seasoned hot air balloon pilot and managing director of Balloon Adventures Emirates, is very familiar with.
He says: “I’ve been doing this for 24 years now and I still love my job. Every day is different and is influenced by several factors such as the weather, the passengers and overall flight, and some flights are better than others. The problem with ballooning, at least from a business point of view, is that the guest experience can’t be standardised because it depends largely on the wind. “To make it even more complicated, the starting time of our flights also depends on the month we fly, and that changes based on the sunrise. In winter, it’s later and as we progress into summer, it’s earlier so we can’t even tell people the exact take off time in advance. As you can imagine, you have got to be reasonably flexible to run a balloon company.”
Captain Kollar has always had a love for the outdoors and has been flying hot air balloons since 1991. He set up his own ballooning company in New Zealand before deciding to move to the UAE after a chance encounter with businessman Abdullah Al Ashram in 2003. At the time Al Ashram was on his honeymoon when he flew with Kollar and enjoyed the experience so much that he suggested setting something similar up in Dubai.
This is Balloon Adventures Emirates’ 11th season in the UAE, with daily flights organised from the beginning of September until the end of May. Flights take place early in the mornings when the calm, cool conditions are best. Every morning a ground crew is on hand at the take off site, by Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, to prepare the balloons about 45 minutes before the pilots and passengers arrive.
“The experienced ground crew, also known as the advance team, lives in our camp in the desert. They prepare the balloons for hot inflation, which is essentially when you turn on the burners and heat the air around the balloon causing it to stand up. They take it up to the very last point and then wait for the pilot. It’s similar to an airplane where engineers prepare the plane before the pilot arrives and get things organised before take off.
“We also have to file a flight plan with air traffic control. We tell them what time we take off and other basic information. The flight plan is the same every day but we still have to call it in as we are a registered aircraft. Every country has a prefix for an aircraft and in the UAE its A6, so even all Emirates planes have A6 too. If I don’t feel it’s safe for flying, and safety is our number one consideration, we just don’t fly,” explains Kollar.
Thankfully, the conditions on our trip are fine and as the sun slowly rises on the horizon, and the picturesque landscape is painted in hues of red and orange, we are presented with a different perspective of the UAE from 4,000 feet in the air. The journey is surprisingly smooth and passengers hardly notice movements of the balloon as it floats gently with the wind.
Afterwards, Kollar makes a few adjustments so that the balloon is closer to the ground, gliding above waves of sand dunes as young gazelles and oryx come into view offering even more awe-inspiring photograph opportunities. Before long, we’re braced to land and we lock our safety belts to the basket and hold on tight. Our balloon descends fairly quickly and in a matter of minutes, the basket tilts and safely lands on its side with all the passengers securely fastened. “For me, the best flights are when we have a variation of wind direction. In that situation, I can play with the balloons to go up and down and manoeuvre it.
“Another enjoyable aspect is when we have a reasonably fast landing – it’s more of a technical challenge for me. The landing is the best part as it’s always interesting and exciting, even for the passengers. You could get a light landing where it’s two or three knots like a leaf, or you could be coming at 10 knots and slide on the ground. It’s impossible to know which kind of landing you’ll have in advance. I can always estimate but there’s no way to really know until it happens,” says Kollar. The balloon adventure is undoubtedly an exhilarating experience for everyone, including Kollar who plans to keep flying for as long as he possibly can, though he doesn’t necessarily expect his young sons to follow in his footsteps: “My wife doesn’t want them to fly. She thinks I’m crazy.”