‘Before I started working as ground crew in Serengeti Balloon Safaris, I knew nothing about hot-air balloons!’ says Captain Mohamed Masudi, the first ever Tanzanian commercial hot-air balloon pilot, now with over 3,000 hours of flying hot air balloons over what is arguably the most famous national park in the world.
From his first days, getting up in the dark and hauling these flying machines into position for tourists to marvel at Serengeti from the air, he was hooked. As a hard-working, bright young man, he caught the attention of the owners, Colin Mackinnon and Tony Pascoe, who had set the company up in 1989, pioneering the idea of wildlife-viewing from the air in Tanzania. They watched him progress and when they thought he was ready, they selected him to go to California to learn to become a balloon pilot. ‘The training was hard work, introducing many new concepts that I had not been exposed to in school in rural Tanzania but I was taught well and eventually passed the exams’, says the humble pilot. Fortunately Mohamed was a natural flier, with innate ability to judge distance, speed and time, an essential quality for a balloon pilot, and he progressed further on to attain his commercial licence before returning to Tanzania in 2001. At this point, he was still not able to fly guests in Serengeti, he had to convert his US licence to a Tanzanian licence, taking more exams, before many months spent flying with the chief pilot at the time, gaining the essential experience required to accurately fly these large, commercial balloons with the precision required by this exacting company.
19 years later, he still loves what he does, from collecting his guests from their camp or lodge, in the dark of a Serengeti pre-dawn, listening to their excitement as he shows them a hyena prowling in his headlights on the way to the launch site, to the building anticipation of the pre-flight safety-briefing, the wonder of the flight itself and the traditional indulgences of the after-flight celebrations. ‘Floating over the plains of Serengeti, sometimes teeming with the sheer biomass of the migrating mega-herds of wildebeest and zebra is a wonder and a privilege that I never get tired of but it is also the unique perspective that you get from the air, peeping into a vulture’s nest, or spotting a lioness with cubs in the grass, invisible from the ground, this is a balloon safari’ says Mohamed, eyes bright with excitement.
So what makes a great hot-air balloon pilot turn a balloon flight into a balloon safari so full of wonder that nobody can forget? It’s not just the details, safety elements, preparation and technical ability, it is also the understanding that each passenger is on the trip of a lifetime and it’s the pilot’s responsibility to make that happen every single time. Flying a balloon of 450,000 cubic feet capacity (12,500 cubic metres) with 16 passengers is all about anticipation - it is more than 10 seconds between action and reaction, imagine driving a car that takes 10 seconds from pressing the brake for the car to start slowing down! Pilots will sometimes fly at grass height, popping up over trees, catching the small eddies in the air currents to ensure that your flight path takes them over the most interesting places or the lion that they’ve spotted up ahead. They must also be able to interpret the experience, knowing the interesting details about the animals, birds, trees and landscape, with which to entertain their guests. At other times, the balloon will soar high into the cool morning sky above the vast plains, giving passengers a magnificent view over this World Heritage Site before bringing the flight to an end after about an hour. This is another part of the flight that requires great skill, balloons are designed and permitted to land at up to 15knots (30 km/h) of wind-speed, without wheels, so pilots will bring the balloon low, where the wind speed is less due to friction, slow it further by gently brushing the grass, before contacting the earth, ideally near a track, so that the ground crew don’t have to drive to far off-road to collect everyone.
Now it is time to celebrate, a glass of champagne is the traditional end to a balloon flight, dating back to the first ever free manned flight, from Versailles in France in 1783. It usually for the landowners but in Serengeti, the wildlife doesn’t appreciate the bubbly, so it’s down the recently-landed to enjoy it before heading off to a sumptuous breakfast under an acacia tree in the middle of the plains.
‘I’ve been able to help my brothers achieve their dreams (one is a fixed-wing pilot and the other is a sound engineer) thanks to my career as a balloon pilot in Serengeti and I still love it, every day is unique’ finishes Mohamed as he signs-off a technical document – he’s also a fully qualified balloon engineer.
We would like to thank Mohamed Masudi and Serengeti Balloon Safaris for sharing their story and the experience they offer. You can find them on Instagram @serengetiballoonsafaris or their website: https://www.balloonsafaris.com/