December 12, 2014
When you float over the English Channel by hot air balloon you could be in another century – a slower, grander, bigger world. The world’s oldest form of aviation just whispers across the top of the water, both the English and French coastlines invisible because of the curvature of the earth.
“It is 22 miles across at the shortest distance. You go right down close to the surface – 10 or 20 feet above the water,” says hot air balloon pilot Michael Ludlow.
“It’s the same route the ferries use, when they come along you rise up so they can go underneath – the passengers are waving and smiling. It’s spectacular.”
Quietly spoken and considered, Michael was destined to fly. With a father and uncle serving in the RAF and a brother who is also a hot air balloon pilot, Michael’s blood is full of air bubbles. While starting out in as a fixed wing aircraft pilot, he soon joined the family ballooning business in the UK with his brother.
“It was a classic case of sibling rivalry,” laughs Barbara Ludlow, Michael’s wife and business partner.
However, this genetic love of flight didn’t necessarily insulate Michael from some bumps while graduating from airplanes to hot air balloons.
“During one solo flight I saw several spots to land but I thought they were all too unstable, I then realised I was in the last field before reaching a cliff.
“I landed just before the cliff – the top of the balloon finished three feet before the edge. I learned from that to always look down, always have an idea of where you’ll land, and always have a back-up option.”
Michael has since landed in some of the most picturesque locations in the world – from England to far north Queensland, the Gold Coast, Hunter Valley and now among the vineyards and paddocks of the Barossa.
The couple established Barossa Valley Ballooning in 2007 after their son married a local girl, and have since become an integral part of the community.
The region’s temperate conditions mean they can also fly much more often than in the UK, where ballooning is seasonal.
Their days start early, often at 4.30am, but the couple – who together showcase a warm, adventurous and accommodating spirit – clearly love their line of work.
“More often than not people are celebrating an occasion – a birthday, an anniversary. One day we had three proposals on the same flight. You could see the last guy couldn’t believe it,” Michael said.
“We get excited with them, because they’re excited. You get swept away by their emotion,” Barbara adds.
“Hot air ballooning puts you on a bit of a high,” Michael summaries dryly. “Excuse the pun.”