A hot air balloon ride is always good fun — it gives you a unique insight into the landscape of the place you are flying over. It is not very high (like an airplane) and yet it is a ride that you will cherish. I was lucky to fly over Mandu recently at the first ever Mandu Festival that had the contoured hot air balloon rides as part of the event. That was when I met a young pilot, Captain Sangram Pawar. Flying runs in his family, I learnt.
Pawar is a Commerce graduate from Pune University and has an MBA in Marketing from University of Wales, Cardiff, UK which he did in 2004. “My father Prakash D Pawar was a senior IPS officer in Maharashtra Cadre and because of his transfers, I have attended over 11 different schools and colleges from my first standard to graduation. So facing new challenges was something I imbibed since childhood,” says Pawar.
His grandfather late Shrirang Jadhav had represented India in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics which were played for world peace post Second World War. Pawar says that his parents always encouraged his sister and him and supported their outdoor and extracurricular activities. “Our parents exposed us to the world of flying when we were in college and since then flying has always been a passion in our family. My younger sister is a commanding pilot and a trainer with an Indian airlines and I chose balloons and got my training and CPL from USA in 2018,” says Pawar.
For the uninitiated, CPL is a commercial pilot (balloon) examination that is required to be passed before one commercially takes up the activity.
Up, Up & Away
Pawar’s journey as a hot air balloon pilot has been nothing less than a roller-coaster ride. “I started the first ever hot air balloon operation in Maharashtra in 2013 at Lonavala which was a completely unexplored territory for me. Since then of course, I have come a long way from facing huge losses, convincing people to try it once (as the people were not aware of the activity) to creating unforgettable memories for our passengers. It has been a fantastic journey until now and I am confident and excited about the future of ballooning in India,” Pawar says.
He is one of the few hot air balloon pilots in the country and also had the opportunity to represent India at the world’s biggest balloon event, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2019 in its 48th edition in October 2019 where approximately 500 balloons take off together. He is also the first pilot to fly the first hot air balloon in the history of Oman in August 2019.
Ballooning is still at a very nascent stage in India and there is a need for a lot of push and co-operation from the government authorities and tourism department. As an adventure sport, it has a huge scope to attract heavy tourism into the country. “India has so many historical sites over which the safe balloon rides can be conducted to give a bird’s eye view to the tourists. It is very important to popularise ballooning via festivals and also ease out the requirements by the DGCA to ensure the activity flourishes,” says Pawar.
Incidentally, it is a myth that balloons are not reliable and as they do not have an engine, they are less safe. “On the contrary, balloons are the safest aircrafts. Ballooning contributes only 0.5 per cent of the total aviation accidents that have taken place till date and the reason is balloon itself is a parachute which will glide down in case of any malfunction and not drop like a rock the way planes or helicopters do when their engines fail,” he points out.
For Pawar, every ride has been different and equally challenging as balloon pilots have to understand the winds precisely to ensure safe landings. One of his most challenging flights was the second last flight of the Albuquerque Balloon Festival where the winds at the surface had picked up and he had to ensure a safe landing and safety of his passengers. “I had safely landed the balloon in 25 Knots speed (50 kmph speed) where we dragged for over 150 meters after landing. The key is to remain calm, confident and focused in such pressurising situations and I can say that I did a great job,” he recalls.
On his recent outing at the Mandu Festival, he admits that flying over Mandu has been an amazing experience. “The terrain, monuments are so beautiful and more importantly, the people are so welcoming and happy to see a balloon land close to their farms. It has been a wonderful area to fly over. I would love to fly again anytime.”
Looking ahead, he hopes that he can start flying for his own operations in Lonavala at the earliest and also try and represent India at international balloon festivals. He also wants to make India a popular ballooning destination on the world map.