In Focus

Audio: Meeting the RAAF’s balloon pilot

Squadron Leader Sam Wright flies Air Force Balloon over his alma mater Trinity (St Patrick’s) College in Goulburn NSW. (@AusAirForce)

Squadron Leader Samuel Wright is the RAAF’s only permanent Air Force balloon pilot.

In this special podcast episode, Wright answers all the questions you were too scared to ask. Why does the RAAF use balloons?

How do they decide who flies it? And how does ballooning differ from flying military aircraft. You can listen to the audio below, or read our AI transcript below.

Transcript generated by Otter.ai

Adam Thorn (AT)

Hello, everybody, I’m Adam Thorn, and we’re here today at the Central Coast Air Show. We’re doing this on Friday as everyone’s setting up. And I’m delighted to be joined by Squadron Leader Sam Wright. Sam, thank you very much for joining us. We’ve got you here on the show today because you are in charge of the RAAF balloon. Is that fair to say?

Squadron Leader Samuel Wright (SW)

Yep. 100 per cent. So, I call myself the RAAF balloon pilot. I’m the only permanent Air Force balloon pilot in the Air Force. So yeah, RAAF balloon pilot, balloon flight commander, either of those works.

AT

You’re probably the only pilot in the RAAF that can say you’re the only one who can captain this, er, balloon!

SW

Yeah, exactly. So we’ve got a couple of reservists pilots. And there are one or two guys that have done the job before. But as far as currently posted as the balloon pilot, yeah.

AT

Why does the RAAF have a balloon? What’s the point of it? What do you do with it?

SW 

It’s funny. That’s one of the first questions we get asked, especially when we take people for a little ride. Sometimes people think it’s a stealth thing, which it’s not. It’s certainly stealthy for eight out of every 10 seconds. The rest of the time, it’s noisy as anything! It’s there to promote a positive image. So it’s very, very effective. It’s also an extremely cheap way of promoting the Airforce and defence in general. So just as an example, our whole operation is cheaper for 12 months than a single Roulette display. So very, very cheap. We get to go to many places that won’t get things like Roulettes, jet flypasts or any of that sort of stuff. And we’re also unique in that people can actually, you might be on an oval at a school, somewhere people can walk up and touch the aeroplane and talk to the pilot and have a ride in and all that sort of business. So it’s unique in Australia. It’s also very unique worldwide as far as I can gather. At the moment, there aren’t any hot air balloons operating in any air force. As I know, the US Marine Corps. I think the US Army had one for about two years. And I think the Royal Air Force has got a balloon club. But as far as actual in the Air Force balloons, I think we might be the only ones in the entire world.

AT

That’s pretty good. You’ve got something here that no other Air Force or most Air Force can’t compete with. Now, this is a really obvious question. How do you set this thing up? You turn to an airshow like here, and you go all around the country? Does it come in a big van? How do you fly it? How does it all work?

SW

Yeah, again, that’s another thing people like to ask us. And people often assume, how long did it take you to fly here? We didn’t fly here. The balloon itself lives in the back of a trailer that we tow behind one of our recovery vehicles. So what we’ll do is we’ll basically drive to the cleared space that we’ve got, and normally we just need a patch of ground. So something like a sporting oval, just a bit of flat grass that’s about 60 metres across, we take it out of the back in the trailer, we set it all up, and then it lies on its side. So just picture the basket lying on its side, the envelope. So the big pit that people call the balloon, the envelopes, lying deflated on the ground, sort of stretched out, what we do is we use a big fan to do a thing called cold air inflation. So we fill the balloon up with cold air to get its shape, and there’s a big void in the middle of the balloon there. And then we’ll turn on the burners and heat the air. Once the air heats up or wants to rise, the whole thing stands up. And we’re pretty much good to go. So to convert from being just a normal free flight in a balloon to a tethered flight, we’ve got three big Dinah ropes that hang from the sides of the burner frame. We connect them to the back of our three vehicles and go up and down. That lets us go up to about 50 feet above the ground and keeps us from floating away or into the rest of the show.

AT

And how much when, how kind of like non-tethered flight do you get to do this each year?

SW

A fair bit, we’re sort of trying to fly. When we’re not away on task. If we’re away on a task, we’ll fly. Sometimes we’ll fly heaps like every morning, but when we’re generally hanging around Canberra because that’s where we’re normally based. We’ll try and program three flights a week. Ballooning being what it is, it’s very sensitive to the weather. And normally it’s wind that gets us, but occasionally there’ll be a bit of rain or a bit of low cloud get us as well. So I normally say we cancel about half of the stuff that we program or commit to, and that’s just the nature of ballooning. So yeah, probably maybe 60-70 flights a year. So fairly regular flying. And, yeah, the tethering sometimes works. We ended up tethering for six hours. Sometimes we won’t even get it up because the conditions aren’t right. But when it works, it works well.

AT

And how bad is this La Nina been for ballooning?

SW

It’s been a bit tricky. So, depending on what sort of restrictions we had with COVID, that’ll determine what we can do. So, a passenger flying for us has taken a real hit. And we haven’t been doing very much of that at all. There’s no way to socially distance in a balloon basket. But on the plus side, we are outside. So the chances of spreading things around are not quite as bad. But yeah, we’re only just starting to come back into it. So we were down at the West Sale Airshow, last show a couple of weeks ago. And yeah, we got about four hours of tethering in there. And yeah, we weren’t operating to any restrictions. People had a few bits and pieces available if they needed them. But there weren’t any restrictions on what we were doing. So yeah, we got several 100 people through flights. So yeah, until earlier this year, we weren’t doing very much apart from a bit of currency flying. But now we’re getting back towards normal operations just about now.

AT

And how on earth did you get this job? This is not a normal thing to get into. How did you stumble into this?

SW 

Yeah, no. I did stumble into it very much. So I started my career as a, for want of a better word, just a normal RAAF pilot. So I went to do a pilots course over in Pierce. I was a Herc guy. So I flew E models and H models Hercs for a while. I went off and became a QFI and came back to fly J models. I taught on J models, and I decided that I would do what most Air Force guys do. And I went to the airlines. So I was at Cathay for about a year and decided I didn’t like Cathay, and preferred the Air Force. So [I] came back to the Air Force and flew some more Hercs. And yeah, I think I’ve got about 25 or 26 years of flying under my belt. And I was getting to that point in my career where it was you eventually grow out of flying, it’s sort of you get promoted out of it, or you just get too old for it. And I thought that my flying had pretty much come to an end. The postings people rang me up and said, “Hey, we got two jobs, you can either go back to the school as an instructor in Pierce, or you can fly the balloon,” and obviously I’ll get back to as an instructor, but I had a chat to the missus. And she said, “Well, there isn’t a job for me over in West Australia. What about the balloon?” I sort of, Yeah, okay, I thought I’ll give it a go. And the funniest thing. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I’ve been at the balloon now for over five years. So I did my first posting, which was three years, got an extension out of that for another couple of years. And now I’m a thing called spec aircrew. So specialist aircrew on the balloon, and yeah, I’ll be here for another six years. So yeah, I thoroughly enjoy it. But it’s been a fun journey. And it’s not a typical career for violin.

AT

How do you have to go through special training or special qualifications you have to get, or is it quite straightforward? Because surely if you can fly an aircraft and fly a balloon … maybe?

SW 

It’s funny that it’s yeah, my balloon qualifications are all governed by a combination of the Australian Ballooning Federation. So it’s treated like recreational aviation; it’s a sort of self-governing body. But also, on the commercial side that’s governed by CASA. So I’ve got my, they call it the private pilot’s certificate, which allows you to go and fly a hot air balloon in a non-commercial setting. I also went off and got my commercial license as well. That’s just a development thing. I’ve got no intention of ever being a commercial balloon pilot. But so all the training is governed by that.

It’s funny. I say to people that when I first did pilots course, it was all completely new, you know, you’re learning that he pulled back on the stick the ground gets small and all that sort of business. And when I went from different aircraft types, it was all the same. Yes, it was different. There are different systems and different levels of technology. The aeroplanes got different roles. But fundamentally, it was the same thing, you know, aeroplane rolls left or plane rolls right, stick back, stick forward that sort of thing on the balloon is completely different. Going back to the first flight that I ever did on a pilot’s course was a completely new thing. So yes, I’ve got a big advantage in that I understand the airborne environment very well.

I can speak on the radio. I can read meteorology reports that sort of stuff, but there is a lot of new stuff like the one that I tell people often is, is micrometer was never a consideration when I was flying a Herc. But now I’m in a balloon. I care about how does that air go around that hill? Well, how does it go over those trees? That sort of stuff? Because that’s the sort of thing that I can use to manoeuvre the balloon now. So yeah, it’s been a novelty. I reckon it took me three years before I got past the point where it was a case of as soon as I was airborne, I was looking for some way to land I was sort of going right, “I gotta set myself up for a landing” because you can’t muscle this aeroplane. Anywhere. You can’t fight against it. It’ll go where it goes, whether you like it or not.

But yeah, after three years, I stopped being nervous about flying, and I started being able to enjoy the flight. And you get towards the 40-minute mark. Yeah, it’s time to start thinking about landing. All right, we can manoeuvre a landing. And I could generally get it where I wanted it to go. So yeah, but it’s been good. And the other aspect of the job is the non-ballooning part, the interaction with the public and that sort of thing. It’s funny, here’s a Herc guy, you’d often go somewhere, and you’ve got a bunch of army guys who’ve just come off an exercise, everyone’s miserable and smelly, and all that sort of stuff. No one’s happy. Whereas on the balloon, every time I have anyone come flying with me or come to events like this to have the best day of their life, so very, very positive, it’s good for the soul.

AT

It’s amazing because we talk about aviation, both militarily and commercial, the technology on these things is incredible. Now, people would argue a lot about commercial airliners, they fly themselves. But on a balloon, you haven’t got that? I would imagine is what you like about it so much? So you say you’ve got to be out there and make proper judgment calls all the time?

SW 

Oh, yeah. Now it’s very raw. It’s fundamentally the same, more or less the same thing that they’ve been doing on balloons for the last 200 years. It’s what 200-ish years, I suppose. But you know, it’s a big sack of air with a basket underneath it, and you heat the air to go up, and you let the air-cool down or vent some of the air to make it go down. And you go up and down to find the wind pointing in the direction you want to manoeuvre the balloon. And that has been the way people have flown balloons since day one. That’s just the way it’s done. And so yes, technology’s changed a little bit in that the burner might be a bit more efficient. And the materials might be a little bit more robust. But fundamentally, yeah, you’re right. It is a centuries-old art. And it is very much I say to people ballooning like sailing a boat, it’s very easy to do because it goes up and it goes down. It’s very, very simple.

And if you’re just trying to balloon around a big grassy plane, very, very easy thing to do. But it’s very, very hard to do well. So yes it’s a science, but it feels so much like an art, it’s not funny. So much judgment and experience. And, you know, everything wants to change all the time. And you give it a little bit of a nudge this way or that way to make it do what you want it to do. But yeah, very rewarding. And sort of, I feel like it’s one of those things like sailing a boat, you can spend your whole life doing it. And still finding ways to do it a little bit better and improving the car keeps you engaged.

AT

It’s interesting. So you’re dealing with the public, and you’re seeing people’s reactions when kids see a balloon, particularly in the sky. Everybody loves it. Everybody looks at it. Why is that? What magic do you get from balloons that you maybe don’t necessarily always get from aircraft?

SW 

I think it’s the closeness that you can walk up to it and touch it. And I think it’s the size. That’s the other thing. And also looking inside. Something that people always comment about is the huge void inside it. The balloon is big when you stand back from 20 metres away and look at it. But when you’re standing up against it, and you look inside it, and there’s this huge void that you could stick a tree inside or something like that. I think that’s, that’s something unusual. And yeah, that’s probably a really big part of it. And the fact that you just don’t see them very often. Yeah, if you’re in the right place, you’d see them all the time, you know, in Canberra, but like here, for example, normally when we come to something like this, will come a day or two early to do a couple of flights around here.

But this area is just not suitable for balloon flying. If you mess up, there are either oceans or national parks. Yeah, I’m a bit risk-averse. I don’t tend to fly when it’s going to be too difficult for me to not mess up. So yeah, you just never see balloons around here. So yeah, people will come along tomorrow to see the balloon, and it’ll wager that a fairly significant portion of the people in that turn up would have never seen a balloon before, so yeah, but they would have seen plenty of aeroplanes. Here they probably would have seen heaps of fast jets, as well.

AT

And final question, you’ve had this incredible career unique. You’ve done aircraft, you’ve done teaching, you’ve done commercial airlines, you’ve done balloons. Why aviation? What is it that you love about it so much? Have you kept going with this?

SW  

Well, yeah, that’s a hard one to answer. See, I knew I wanted to be an Air Force pilot. Since I was about eight years old. There was a guy, one of my dad’s mates. I grew up on a farm. And so a guy a couple of farms down, his son joined the Air Force. And so I’d hear stories about that. And I thought, oh, that sounds good. But I mean, it’s a pretty normal thing for a 10-year-old boy to be into noisy machines and that sort of stuff. So it’s sort of it was always the thing that I wanted to do.

I guess the thing that I like about it, well, the motivations change as you get older. I mean, I’m not an office guy. I like being outside. I like doing things with my hands. So I guess it’s one of those places where I get the opportunity to do that. There’s time in the office, a fair bit of time. But most of my work does involve walking around chatting to people being outside, playing with the big machine making noise, all that sort of good stuff. So to a degree, I’ve got to be a big kid for the last 30 years.

AT

So getting away with it. Yeah.

SW

Getting paid for it, too. So it’s, yeah, it’s a rich tapestry of things. But yeah, that would probably be the best way to explain it.

AT

Well, I think we will wrap things up on that perfect note. Thank you very much for your time, and good luck tomorrow.

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