Ideas around ballooning in Ethiopia were all just hot air until a Dutch company backed a local venture in 2012. Now the new company is hoping to hit the heights. Kaleyesus Bekele reports from Addis Ababa.
Netherlands-based Sky Balloon Flights established Abyssinia Ballooning in November 2011 along with a local partner in Ethiopia. General manager and chief pilot, Bram van Loosbroek, runs company.
The company organises recreational hot air balloon flights and tours near the capital city, Addis Ababa.
“Ballooning is a purely recreational aviation activity as we cannot steer horizontally,” explained van Loosbroek. “We follow the wind and cover distances with an average speed of 15kmh. We land in farmers’ fields and then drive back to the take-off location.
“Balloon pilots can control the flight in centimetres vertically. They are trained according to the highest international standards and only fly in safe weather conditions.”
Well-known local company Adika, represented by prominent businessman Awad Mohamed Alamin, is the Ethiopian partner in the business, which operates the flights from Holetta, 30km west of Addis Ababa.
According to van Loosbroek, the company made an initial capital investment of €100,000 ($105,793) and then raised its investment to €250,000 ($264,440). It plans to make an additional investment of €250,000.
“More will be invested in balloon materials and chase vehicles – minivans for passengers and chase cars to carry the balloon basket and fabric,” van Loosbroek explained.
The company has one balloon (basket, burner, gas cylinder, fabric) produced in the United Kingdom by the renowned balloon manufacturer Cameron Balloons. The balloon, which carries 10-12 passengers, cost €100,000.
Most of Abyssinia Ballooning’s customers are expats, although the word is spreading. “We are happy to see that more and more Ethiopians are booking our balloon trips for wedding celebrations and business and family outings,” van Loosbroek said.
He plans to work closely with national flag- carrier, Ethiopian Airlines. “We want to offer our recreational balloon trips to business travellers and tourists,” he said.
After four years of operation, Abyssinia Ballooning is not yet profitable. “We understand that pioneering takes time and are committed to make a successful company. We hope that many people will find their way to us because we would love to let them experience the serenity and beauty of ballooning. We expect that we will make some amount of profit in 2016 for the first time,” he added.
Ethiopians knew little about ballooning before the establishment of the company. The Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) was not familiar with it. Colonel Wossenyeleh Hunegnaw, director general of the ECAA, said the authority did not have a balloon-licensing manual when van Loosbroek first approached the authority seeking a permit. “Since Abyssinia Ballooning was the first company, we had to prepare the ballooning licensing manual. We had to read about balloons and other country’s licensing procedures to produce our own licensing manuals. Abyssinia Ballooning brought to us some reading materials about ballooning,” Hunegnaw said.
“We work in close cooperation with the ECAA in developing a safe and controlled ballooning standard in Ethiopia,” said van Loosbroek. “In this cooperation we exchange ballooning flight manuals, maintenance manual, pilot training programmes, licensing procedures and more. These ballooning manuals and procedures originate from European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulation. The cooperation goes smoothly. It is a continuous process of sharing knowledge and we have the same goal of setting a safe ballooning standard in Ethiopia.”
Back in 2012, Abyssinia Ballooning took 20 air traffic controllers from ECAA on demonstration flights.
In order not to disturb the busy Bole Airport, the company only flies in the Holetta area and some resort towns like Hawassa, Awash Park and Langano.
The road has not been easy, according to van Loosbroek. Attracting morecustomers to help the company to break even is a big challenge. “We want to boost our revenue and hopefully start making a profit. We need to establish more partnerships with Ethiopian and international tour operators to offer our service to tourists.”
Taking pictures in many places in Ethiopia could put you in prison. For instance, photographing from the air is prohibited. This frustrates tourists, who pay for the ballooning flights. “We conform to the Ethiopian regulations on national security. Ethiopia is a very safe country in the Horn of Africa – one of which the government and its people can be proud,” said van Loosbroek.
“Of course, on Google maps, the same or more can be seen than from our balloon but still we respect the rules and regulations of the country. We explain to our passengers and sometimes it frustrates them, but they understand and respect our position.”
Abyssinia Ballooning plans to expand its services to other parts of Ethiopia. “We hope to set up a branch with one or two balloons in Hawassa, a popular resort town 270km south of Addis Ababa. If it is possible, we also hope to set up a base of one or two balloons in the Bahir Dar area, a city in northwest Ethiopia.
“From these places we can drive to other areas like Aksum (a historical city in north Ethiopia) and other locations to make early morning flights. Of course, we should discuss the expansion and get approval from all the relevant authorities. First we need to make our operation in Addis profitable before we can set up any other branches.”
Abyssinia Ballooning has a future plan of branching out to other African countries. However, for the time being, van Loosbroek wants to focus on Ethiopia.
The company has five Ethiopian staff members. All the pilots are foreigners, as there are no Ethiopians who hold the ballooning pilot licenses. “The training programme is quite long and costly. But it is one of our key objectives to start training Ethiopian balloon pilots. I am convinced that, in a few years’ time, we will have trained the first Ethiopian balloon pilot,” van Loosbroek said.
Abyssinia Ballooning does not fly during the rainy season – June-September – for safety reasons.
“Ballooning is completely safe, given that the balloon is being flown in stable weather conditions only,” said van Loosbroek. “As a balloon cannot steer a [thunder] shower will suck in the balloon and then it can be dangerous. We will not take any risk and, therefore, we don’t fly in the rainy season.”
According to van Loosbroek, during the rest of the year early morning balloon flights can be conducted in Ethiopia. Late morning, afternoon and evening balloon flights are impossible as wind turbulence starts growing after 8.30am.