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Profiles

'How I Became a Hot Air Balloon Pilot'

hot air balloon
Barnabas Shisanya a 38-year-old pilot at the cockpit of a hot-air balloon. PHOTO | GEORGE SAYAGIE | NMG 

Drifting over the famous Maasai Mara game reserve in a hot-air balloon is an adventure of a lifetime.

For one hour, I hovered over the vast savannah plains, acacia trees, giraffes, herds of topis, elands, gazelles and elephants. It was magical.

Of interest for me was the pilot flying the hot air balloon.

For years, Barnabas Shisanya, who works at the Fig Tree Camp, has been flying tourists daily.

His day starts at 5am when he drives to a launch site and joins crew members who assemble, inflate, chase and pack up the balloon after landing.

As the assembling and inflation continues, he meets and greets his passengers. At 6.10am, the captain with a deep voice and strong accent briefs his 12 passengers on safety rules during take-off and landing; where to hold, the positions to take and things like that.

Thereafter, the gasoline-powered inflator fans fill up the balloon envelope with cold air as it lies on the ground.

The crew holds the mouth of the balloon open and install the deflation port at the top of the balloon as Barnabas goes round inside the balloon to make sure that it has no holes or any damage.

The crew then goes through a preflight checklist as passengers board.

We were five visitors on the balloon so crew members joined in to fill vacant positions to stabilise the balloon.

After take-off, the remaining crew loaded the equipment on the field and began running after the balloon to where it would land.

Once in the balloon, the pilot lit up the banners and as the flames flared, it inflated and rose to the skies.

Barnabas is the third Kenyan pilot to fly a balloon besides Ian Mimano and David Eris who work with Hot Air Balloon company.

“I have eight years since I started flying balloons in Maasai Mara and Serengeti in Tanzania. So far, I have clocked 1,200 hours on air,” he says.

Dream job

Barnabas trained in information technology in the 90s before he got a job at Fig Tree Camp as a receptionist. “Working as a receptionist was OK but I dreamed of being a pilot,” he said.

One day his boss asked him if he would like to be a hot-air balloon pilot.

“I answered 'yes, yes, yes, that is my dream job.' Then I thought he was joking but he took out his phone and told the CEO of Mada Hotels 'Barnabas is interested'.”

Barnabas travelled to Nairobi for an interview and he was later sent to the US embassy to apply for a visa. He flew to California, USA, to train as a balloon pilot. Brent Stockwell, a 76-year-old former army officer, trained him.

After four months, he came back in 2008 and continued training and building hours by flying sand bags on a larger and bigger 315, a 12-seater hot air balloon.

According to him, hot air ballooning is the perfect way to crown a Maasai Mara safari.

“Balloon safari offers a unique experience over the expansive Mara plains, forests and river teeming with abundance of game,” he told me as we flew over the Mara.

The balloon followed the direction of the wind. We floated over forests, plains and rivers. After one hour, we landed with a bump and as you can already imagine, we were ready for breakfast in the bush, complete with champagne.

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