M. Halis Aydogan has been interested in hot air balloons for almost 20 years. He now owns and operates one of the largest hot air balloon companies in the world, having flown almost 200,000 passengers. Cappadocia Voyager Balloons flies primarily over the historic Cappodocian region of Turkey. Near the city of Göreme, where Halis’s company operates, rocks have eroded into hundreds of spectacular pillars and minaret-like forms, also known as “fairy chimneys.” It's very scenic.
The very first successful hot air balloon flight was more than 200 years ago: Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes in 1783, Paris, France. Balloons came to the United States ten years later, but it wasn’t until 1960 when nylon fabric and the baskets were developed that ballooning became a commercially viable business. Since then, balloons have sprinkled the skies in many different shapes and colors all over the world, at festivals, carrying advertisements, taking sightseers across the land with a bird’s eye view.
Over the years, balloons have evolved into the craziest shapes and the coziest baskets, but for the most part the experience of floating into the hair has remained unchanged. We caught up with Halis about how he got started in ballooning, and his most memorable experiences in the open sky.
How long have you been a balloon operator?
I started ballooning in 1998 and became a hot air balloon pilot in 2004.
Could you describe your educational background and the first steps to becoming a balloon operator? Was it something you always fantasized about?
It was not something I ever dreamed of when I was young. The first time I saw a hot air balloon was in 1993, on the way to my high school. The hot air balloon landed next to our house and I was in hurry to catch the bus. Then in 1997, we had the aviation Olympic games in Cappadocia and that’s the first time I saw many balloons and decided to get involved with hot air ballooning. The following year, I rented balloons from the Turkish Aviation Association and start the hot air balloon business in Cappadocia.
To become a pilot in Turkey, first you need a high school degree and you have to pass health exams which are required by Federal Aviation Administration. In Turkey, you can get your license after 25 hours of flight time and 120 hours ground training. It can be different in different parts of the world. For example, in the USA, 12 hours of flight training; in France 25 hours of flight training. There are courses and schools everywhere in the world!
In Turkey, there are two types of licenses for hot air balloon pilots. The first is a hot air ballon pilot license and the second is a Commercial Hot Air Balloon Pilot License. To get the Commercial License, you must have at least 85 hours solo flights and you have to get another 15 hours of commercial pilot training course and 60 hours of ground training. After you finalize all these courses with a min. 100 hours of flights, you can start flying over [historical, mountainous regions like] Cappadocia.
What are some of the qualities of a good balloon operator? I imagine you can't be shy, given that you are in close quarters with your riders for the duration of the trip.
Cappadocia is where over 60% of the world’s commercial balloon flights are operated in a year. To be a good operator in the hot air balloon business, you have to speak a good level of English and at least one other foreign language. You have to know the landscape well and the history of the places you are flying over. Good communication skills plus a happy face is the most important thing.
What is the pay like? Do you have a sense of the range from beginner to expert? Does it make a difference which balloon you're operating?
In Turkey, the experience of flight hours are more important than the type of the hot air balloon you are operating. In Europe, you are payed up to the hot air balloon you are operating but they fly max. 60 days in a year. Mostly being a hot air balloon pilot is their second job. In Turkey we operate more than 250 hours in a year and it [is typically] their only job. Mostly pilots work with a salary in Turkey and paid between 1500 € to 4000 € per month and it is a year-round job.
What are the hours like?
That's the only part where one can find it a very challenging part for the business. You are asked to be up and ready hours before a sun rises to operate your service in a professional way. Every day, as early as three or four o’clock, I am up and about for a new day.
In short, you can not have late nights with lots of fun and drinking... You finish a very busy morning by 14:30 or 2:30 p.m. [Then the] rest of the day is easy and slow.
What are some of your best memories doing this job?
Honestly, I have the same excitement after many years in the air with people, flying over Capadocian formations... I can not help feeling emotional to be an eye-witness for a wedding proposal in the basket during a flight. Singing the same tune for a surprise birth-day party with a family and many other precious moments... All in the air and unforgettable memories for life.
If I were to start operating a balloon, what advice would you give me?
I will advice to be patient to explain hot air balloon flights to your clients. In 1998, when I started it was difficult because people were not interested to fly in a hot air balloon in my area. I took the advantage of being a local and tried to promote the balloon rides for the visitors of Cappadocia. What I have seen, the best way to promote your business and the balloon rides is the happy clients after the landings. It just becomes their highlight of the trip and its is the first thing they recommend to their friends to do. After 2007, with the help of social media, people got more interested in the hot air balloon rides. So, social media is another important thing to promote hot air balloon business because you can have great photos from your flights.