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From cockpits to baskets: Training program helps pilots transition

A Rainbow Ryders’ hot air balloon returns to Balloon Fiesta Park after a flight that launched from the field in Albuquerque in this file photo. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — During a challenging time for the aviation industry, Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Co. is offering to train pilots and other professionals in a very different type of aircraft.

Rainbow Ryders, the official sponsor of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, is launching a training program aimed at teaching commercial and military pilots how to lead hot-air balloon tours. Rainbow Ryders founder Scott Appelman said the program will last 12 to 16 months, and will leave graduates with the necessary certifications and a guaranteed position at Rainbow Ryders.

“We see a great resource there in the existing industry, if they just want to … take a look at something a little different,” Appelman said.

The commercial aviation industry has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and associated travel restrictions. According to the industry advocacy group Airlines for America, passenger volumes on U.S. airlines dropped by more than 90% year over year last spring, and have been slow to recover.

By the start of February, domestic passenger volume remained down 65% compared to the same period last year, and isn’t expected to rebound to 2019 levels until 2023 at the earliest, according to the organization.

“The reality is, aviation has suffered horribly,” said Daryl Williams, an aviation attorney based in Phoenix.

Appelman said the industry’s challenges provide an opportunity for Rainbow Ryders, which has grown quickly in recent years but still found it challenging to identify and train qualified balloonists. He said the program could be a way to help the company grow while giving pilots looking to leave the commercial aviation industry a chance to stay in the air.

Participants would learn the specifics of piloting and maintaining a hot-air balloon, along with more subtle skills like leading tours and answering questions from guests. He said being an entertainer and communicator is nearly as important as the nuts and bolts of guiding a balloon.

“Every time you go up and fly these people, you’re creating memories for them,” Appelman said.

Participants will receive a stipend, but Appelman said they will be expected to pay for propane and damages done to the balloon. Participants will earn a commercial hot-air balloon license and have a guaranteed job at Rainbow Ryders with a two-year commitment, Appelman said.

“We take good care of our people, because we need to be able to trust them,” he said.

Balloonists can expect to make between $60,000 and $100,000 annually, with benefits, he said. By comparison, the median annual wage for commercial pilots was $86,080 as of 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Appelman added that working as a balloonist also offers quality of life benefits like not having to travel from city to city.

Williams, a pilot, said he sees significant differences between flying a hot-air balloon and flying a commercial airplane. Balloonists will have to get used to having much less control over their craft and traveling a much shorter distance.

“I am anxious to see if that’s a successful transition,” Williams said.

Still, Appelman said there are certain skills, including monitoring weather conditions, that will feel familiar, even if they have to modify their approaches.



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