Working Wonders: After 3,000 flights, the only way is up for Dubai hot-air balloon pilot

Captain Andrew Parker on witnessing dozens of wedding proposals and travelling the world in a floating basket

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Our Working Wonders of the UAE series takes you to some of the country's most recognisable destinations to uncover the daily duties of the talented employees working there

Andrew Parker spends his days floating 4,000ft above the Arabian Desert as the chief pilot at Balloon Adventures Dubai.

The 39 year old has travelled the world in his hot-air balloon, notching up 3,000 flights and 87 countries since his first solo flight as a 16 year old.

From witnessing countless marriage proposals to manoeuvring emergency landings in the Russian wilderness, nothing compares to life in the clouds for the New Zealander.

Here, he invites The National along for an early flight across the Dubai dunes to show why rolling red sands and the rising Sun make for the perfect office.

Why did you decide to become a hot-air balloon pilot?

When I was about six years old, I saw my first balloon and it was love at first sight. It was flying over my childhood home in New Zealand and I knew then and there that was what I wanted to do with my life.

I started in a balloon club when I was 13 and then when I was 16 I became a balloon pilot, which is the youngest age you can start the training.

I went through the training programme and completed the 98 hours required to fly commercially. I could actually fly a balloon before I could drive a car.

I'm one of the lucky ones who have been able to follow my dreams and become a balloon pilot.

What does your job involve?

I’m currently flying commercial passengers out in the Dubai desert for about an hour or so over the beautiful dunes towards Margam.

The good thing about balloon piloting is that the actual flying part only takes a few hours early in the morning, so you have a lot of spare time for the rest of the day.

However, as chief pilot the rest of my day usually involves overseeing flying operations and generally just making sure everything is running smoothly.

What are some of the most exciting aspects?

I’ve seen dozens of wedding proposals and, so far, there’s been a 100 per cent success rate, which is great.

It's nice to share my passion for ballooning with others and see the joy we’re bringing to people.

Sometimes it's a bucket-list item that people want to tick off and that’s really special. I travel all around the world with my balloon.

I’ve flown in 87 countries including France, Afghanistan, Russia and across South America.

The most stunning place I’ve flown was in the south of China, which is surrounded by cast limestone mountains that go on and on for ever.

What are the most challenging parts?

A balloon is not like a plane where you can turn on the autopilot and away you go.

You have to be able to steer and control it and also know a lot about the weather.

It’s also important to be adaptable as a balloon pilot because you never know exactly where you're going to land.

You have a pretty good idea some days, but other days it's a bit more flexible.

You have to use the winds to get to where you want to go, and we have some control of different wind lanes at different altitudes.

By going up and down, you change the speed and direction. It's always a good challenge and no two flights are the same. I've done about 3,000 flights and so far, so good.

One day the wind changed direction while I was flying in Russia and started blowing us towards an enormous forest.

I landed in very long grass close to a road but I didn't see the stream between the road and where I had landed because the grass was so tall.

We ended up building a bridge to get out.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

I had a project where I travelled around the world called the Flying High for Kids World Balloon Project.

I bought a truck and I had the balloon in the back and I drove from country to country over a five-year period.

There were a lot of different children's organisations involved and the aim was to encourage underprivileged children to follow their dreams.

It was my project and I funded it myself, so it was very important to me.

I also have another project in New Zealand, which is ongoing, where I visit schools encouraging children to get into science, technology, engineering and maths.

It's not just about flying balloons, but also about sharing my passion and knowledge and hopefully inspiring children to think about their careers and what they would like to do.

What might surprise people about your role?

Most people are surprised that being a balloon pilot is a job at all.

It’s a very unique job and I'm very happy to tell people that they can also be a balloon pilot if that’s what they want.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I would like to take the New Zealand science project to other countries and hopefully one day the UAE.

I think it's important that we encourage the next generation from a young age and get them thinking about the future.

With the Flying High for Kids project, we went through East Africa, Central Asia, South America and lots of really far-flung places where people had never seen balloons before.

To be able to share that experience is a passion and an honour.

Updated: November 10, 2023, 11:58 AM