My thrilling balloon ride with competition pilot | Photos, video

I’ve been in a hot air balloon but not with a competition pilot until the weekend. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

I was lucky enough to be a passenger with 19-year-old Melbourne hot air balloon pilot Ed Saunders on Sunday morning, he generously took me up for a “media flight” in a practice ahead of the week-long Canowindra International Balloon Challenge.

We ended up see-sawing from about 8000ft in the air to nearly reaching the ground during our one hour flight, travelling nearly 15kms from the Canowindra Sports Ovals to a property out on Longs Corner Road.

We attempted two challenges where Ed tossed a marker at a target on the ground. Going off the cheer from crowd at the second one I think we came pretty close.

What amazed me the most was Ed’s ability to control the balloon and direct it exactly where he wanted, all while putting up with a camera and mobile phone in his face and conducting a pretty relaxed interview. 

Previous times I’d flown in a hot air balloon I’d been in a larger basket with about four or five people. Competition pilots tend to fly on their own and the baskets are much smaller, only carrying the necessities to make it easier to manoeuvre. I could feel every slight movement.

At one stage we were about 8000ft in the air. I was clinging onto the edge of the basket with one hand and holding my phone with the other.

Ed, while only 19, has plenty of experience. He was busy the entire time making sure we were on the right path to various targets, sitting on the edge of the basket and talking to other pilots and his crew on his walky-talky checking to see if he was clear to steer the balloon how he wanted.

I don’t think he even realised how beautiful the view was.

Nineteen-year-old hot air balloon pilot Ed Saunders.

Nineteen-year-old hot air balloon pilot Ed Saunders.

Yanking on a rope and opening an attachment at the top releases hot air and the balloon can fall pretty quickly. Pumping the burner makes it rise.

We dropped from 8000ft to nearly brushing the earth when Ed was trying to catch a breeze as we homed in on a target. We took off again to get a better look, then we dropped to get as close as we could, without running into trees or power lines. Ed dropped his marker which landed less than two metres from the target, about 15kms from where we launched, and the small crowd surrounding the target cheered.

He was pretty chuffed with his effort. Then we landed and the crew came and collected us and cleaned up and took us back to the Showground. 

That’s where I went for the morning briefing about 5.15am in the pitch black dark not knowing that I’d be floating about 8000ft in the air less than two hours later.

I was back home for breakfast about 9am – what a morning.

It was certainly different to a regular flight. I can understand why they love it. 

Ed was more than happy to take me for the ride and it was an experience I’ll remember forever.

I live videoed the flight on the Canowindra News Facebook page. It’s worth checking out.