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A flight over Canterbury with one of New Zealand's top balloonists

17 January 2018

Floating effortlessly over the Canterbury Plains with a basket full of tourists is how Ballooning Canterbury owner Michael Oakley likes to start the day. “Welcome to my office,” he says, rising above the paddocks at sunrise, with views across the fertile plains to the Southern Alps.

Oakley, a fifth-generation Hororata farmer, first tried ballooning in 1997. Already an experienced glider pilot, he says he enjoyed the challenge of mastering the oldest form of human flight and dreamt about one day owning a commercial ballooning company.

In 2010, Oakley and his wife, Kate, were at a crossroads. They could either invest in some much-needed expensive machinery on their potato farm (an industry they were losing confidence in) or buy their own balloon.

Michael’s passion for flying trumped harvesting potatoes and soon they were ordering their first balloon from Bristol, England – a 275,000 cubic foot beauty, custom designed right down to the red leather basket.

The new balloon arrived not long before the Christchurch earthquake, a time of massive disruption, so it wasn’t until 2012 that Ballooning Canterbury really took off. The business now operates year-round using three modern balloons, all made at the Cameron Balloon Factory in Bristol using finely-woven, silicon-coated material.

Michael says Ballooning Canterbury has always been a family affair – something that is true now more than ever.

His 24-year-old son, Nicholas, came on board as a second pilot at the end of last year. Kate is the administration, booking and accounts department and their daughter manages the company’s social media and website.

Nicholas started going up in hot air balloons at age four – not able to see out of the basket, and showed an interest in flying at 10. By 12, he was flying solo. “I didn’t mind but his mum was pretty nervous about it," says Michael. "He went on to fly gliders at 14 and went solo in powered planes at 16.”

The plan is for Nicholas to become chief pilot so his father can spend the New Zealand winter flying balloons in Kenya. For now, flying together creates a healthy rivalry. “There’s always a bit of competitiveness. We try to land in each other’s paddock and that’s really good because it improves our skills.”

Michael says Ballooning Canterbury's relationship with local farmers, essentially an “open gate policy”, is crucial to the business and having a farming background helps. He knows the lay of the land from 10 years as an agricultural spray contractor in the area and avoids certain paddocks during different stages of the cropping cycle.

“When we first started out we identified some of the major areas we’d be landing in and took the farmers for a ride,” Michael says. “There’s probably no other balloon company in the world that has such a strong relationship with so many farmers." If the farmers don't see a balloon for a week or so, "they start asking questions".

Ballooning Canterbury can fly more days than other New Zealand operators, which Michael says is due to the company's location and his understanding of weather systems from farming and many years of aviation.

He and Nicholas assess the weather before dawn by releasing a helium balloon into the darkness with an LED light attached to it. “We watch it drift up to the night sky and from that we get a pretty good idea what the winds are doing between the ground and 2000 feet.”

Michael also forecasts the weather for his glider club every week and farmers sometimes ring him up with weather-related questions, like when to cut their hay and when to spray their paddocks. "They call me Mr Met Man.”

An extensive aviation record

Michael has won numerous national ballooning events throughout the country and has represented New Zealand overseas.

He is also a keen glider pilot with 32 years’ experience, having represented New Zealand in two world championships.

Nicholas is a New Zealand balloon champ and shares his father’s enthusiasm for gliders. Together, they are New Zealand’s two-seater glider champs.

Nicholas flew in the under-25 world gliding championships in Lithuania last year, finishing in the top third of his field.

What to expect with Ballooning Canterbury

  • Hot air balloon rides with Ballooning Canterbury are approximately one hour, so allow four hours for the whole experience.
  • Prepare to get up early as it is usually an early start and Hororata is a 40-minute drive from Christchurch.
  • Ballooning is best at dawn when the weather is calmest – the beautiful morning light makes it worth sacrificing a bit of sleep.
  • After a safety briefing, you’ll be encouraged to help the pilot and crew with pre-flight inflation.
  • You’ll also be asked to help with packing up after the flight. When you land you’ll be served a light snack of seasonal fruit, muffins, champagne and orange juice.
  • For more information, click here.
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