Sometimes it’s gazelles and oryxes running below that get her attention. Other times, it’s deer – curious as ever, never coming too close but always stopping to watch as she flies by. Then there’s the time she slowly glided over innumerable ancient pagodas – high enough to see the ethereality play out, low enough to hear monks chanting. And then there’s been the smooth-sailing over vivid landscapes of bucolic vineyards and valleys, slender, meandering rivers, ancient castles in all their glory…
These fantastical other-wordly settings are anything but fantasy: they’re what hot-air balloon pilot and Dubai resident Edgora McEwan has had the opportunity to admire and experience over the past few years as she soars, coasts and drifts along on the wind.
Edgora terms it as there being ‘no other feeling like it in the world’.
‘Imagine floating on a magic carpet and having a bird’s-eye view of the world below? That is what flying a hot-air balloon is.’
From its humble beginnings over 200 years ago – in the hands of Frenchmen Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes – manned hot-air balloons have taken off, sprinkling the skies with a kaleidoscope of colours while simultaneously making it to everyone’s bucket lists. From Cappadocia to Myanmar, (where Edgora saw the pagodas), Tuscany to Tanzania, from green fields to dry deserts, hot-air balloons have become a popular choice to take in the sheer scale of a stunning landscape.
For Edgora, this intriguing passion of being a hot-air balloon pilot didn’t have exceptionally early beginnings as a child’s wild dream; it took off just three years ago when she first took a joy ride in a hot-air balloon in Dubai. She remembers standing in the gondola, absorbing the beauty all around, and being unable to stop thinking about the feeling of elation she experienced even days after the flight. That initial appeal was soon to turn into a full-blown passion, before it snowballed into an inseparable element of her life. As she soared high on her third flight, ‘I thought right, this is what I’d like to do.’
Getting to meet the pilots who flew the balloons was the next step in further cementing the aspiration. ‘I found they were so enthusiastic, treating flying a balloon as everything: their job, their hobby, their career. They were also so supportive – the whole ballooning community is.’
The Uzbekistan national quickly signed up at a flying school in Mondovi in Italy, did the requisite 16 hours of flying, took the five written tests, a check flight and a solo flight, becoming a UK-certified private balloon pilot.
The 35-year-old has since flown in Italy, Poland and the Netherlands as a pilot in command, besides joining her pilot friends on flights in Myanmar, UAE, Uzbekistan, Armenia and England. Her favourite skyline, however, is closer home, the home she has adopted over the past 16 years. ‘Flying over the UAE’s pristine desert and seeing the incredible shapes of dunes at sunrise, along with all the wildlife you get to spot below you – that is spectacular. Dubai has one of the most beautiful deserts I’ve ever seen.’
It’s a profession that sure makes your standard nine-to-five pale in comparison. ‘When you are in the basket, you don’t know what to expect. As soon as you take off it’s so nice and quiet because you’re travelling at the speed of wind, and it’s magical. It’s peaceful. The balloon is such a stable way of flying.’
For Edgora now, the next leg of the journey is working towards notching up hours as a private pilot, which will help her obtain a commercial balloon pilot’s licence. She travels once in four months to Europe for it. ‘I need about 40 more hours, but the more the merrier, and it’s better to keep it consistent and not take a big gap. It’s key to keep hands on the burner all the time, a bit like practising driving a car.’
A balancing act
Even so, this doesn’t form the biggest challenge for Edgora, who besides flying along on the wind, co-owns a photography business. ‘What is the toughest bit is building flying hours while balancing being a full-time mother to two gorgeous kids. School runs, after-school activities, etc. mean I’m not able to travel as much I’d like. I do take flying days off when I travel though, attending balloon festivals to build hours.’
Which means her six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son have grown up listening, watching and talking all things hot-air balloons. ‘They are very supportive and proud of me; my daughter wants to become a pilot too.’
While her most memorable flight was her solo one in Italy – ‘I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride for being able to do what I love’ – flying her children for the first time in a hot-air balloon in the Netherlands ranks high up there as being unforgettable too. ‘When they were younger I was not allowed to fly them, so when I finally got the chance, it was an emotional moment for me. They were seeing their mum flying a balloon.’ She laughs about how it wasn’t really easy to hold the attention of two below-10s for one hour: ‘kids get bored fast, but thankfully we were at a balloon festival there and they got to see balloons of special shapes, from a Coca-Cola bottle to Ronald McDonald. They still talk about it. It was good for them to know what mummy does.’
Landing the job of a hot-air balloon pilot – or getting it to take off, rather – is no easy task. The schedule is strict and the standard set for safety in ballooning worldwide is very high, Edgora elaborates. ‘So progress can be slow during both your initial training and any additional flying required to get your ratings.’
‘The preparation before every flight is a long process. When I fly in Europe, there’s getting a balloon, hiring a crew, getting to know the area, for which it’s better to have a local pilot with you. Then there’s the procedure of keeping up with the weather data – monitoring the weather the previous night, on the morning, as you go to the launch field... The flight may just be one hour, but the entire process takes about four hours.’ There’s also the crucial safety briefing. ‘First for the crew, a passenger briefing for safety – this happens every morning, no matter how much you know these people, how experienced everyone is, you still do it, stressing on the three rules - aviate, navigate and communicate. Then there are the various back-up plans – plans A, B, C and D.’
Edgora calls ballooning the safest form of aviation as it takes place only with good weather and favourable winds, so the chances of something alarming happening are minimal. But as a beginner, she had her share of scares. ‘When up in the air, you need to be aware of how far away you are from the nearest balloon or balloons. Sometimes you end up being too close to each other. But everybody is well experienced and know the rules. You need to pay close attention at all times though.’
Is entering – and excelling – this male-dominated profession a struggle? ‘Aviation as a whole is a male-dominated activity and ballooning is no exception,’ Edgora says. ‘But challenges in ballooning are easily mastered and overcome by every determined woman coming in the sport and I have been fortunate enough to already meet and fly with some world-class female balloon pilots.
‘Funny enough I get contacted very often by women who’d like to be hot-air balloon pilots; they find me on social media, seek my advice and if they should go for it. And I always say yes to that. There are not so many of us women there. Being at the same level as males in this amazing sport is fascinating, and we can do it just as well with practice, experience and time.’
The industry is as dotted with inspirational pilots as a well-known Cappadocia skyline is with balloons. Edgora speaks of Andrew Parker, who flies around the world to underprivileged countries to motivate kids to not give up and to achieve their dreams. ‘He taught me how to be a better pilot. And one of the biggest highlights since I started ballooning was flying with the Australian pilot Elly Kirkman, who I admire so much. In a field dominated by males, Elly’s enthusiasm, the way she flies, her professionalism motivates me. The whole hour I flew with her I was fascinated.’
Having a good level of fitness is a perquisite for the job, along with adapting to very early-morning starts on a regular basis. ‘This works for me as I’m a morning person and nothing gives me more pleasure than watching the sunrise over the city from up high,’ she says. But the mental aspect might count as much, if not more. ‘It is the same in all aviation,’ Edgora says. ‘Being in the air means that you are part of an elite group of people who have got where they are through hard work, determination and the highest level of skill. It’s always safety first. So you go through so many training sessions, where they teach you it’s important to keep calm no matter what happens, to be able to take quick decisions, to be prepared for crisis situations. You have to be focused, know what you’re doing.’
She certainly knows what she’s doing, but that didn’t stop her mother from ‘being absolutely horrified’ when she first told her she planned to take up hot-air ballooning. ‘She was like, what, you’re going to do what? I had to explain it to her, of how very safe it is and that I would have a lot of training. She knows I’ve always been a determined one, and I think she’s very proud of me – she called me to offer congratulations when I got my licence, and now she tells everyone my daughter is a pilot.’ In a similar vein, on a trip to Uzbekistan, Edgora met some pilots and went on a flight with them. ‘They were fascinated about a female in the field.’
Edgora says passion forms the base for it all. ‘You need to fall in love with this unique way of flying. Then you need to be determined, focused and work hard towards a licence. On the way, you will get to meet some wonderful people as it is a very sociable activity. I love the fact that people want to jump in a balloon basket and spend some time in the air with me.’
Is it a lucrative profession? ‘Once you get to the top level in ballooning, it is a good living and a great job. You can end up working here in Dubai or in the Game Reserves of East Africa or some other great places in the world.’
‘Every time you go up there and you meet the sunrise from above, it’s an unbelievable feeling. Every single time up in the clouds feels like the first time, and everyone should experience it once in a lifetime.’