Kiff Saunders has flown the world over. Now he makes sure passengers of all abilities can fly with him.
It’s 5am and a convoy of vans towing seven hot air balloons has arrived in the pre-dawn light at a park in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
The first gigantic basket lies on its side. With timely blasts from its burner, the attached balloon rises and the basket slowly rights itself. Other balloons are set up similarly by crew and passengers with willing hands.
Five of our group clamber over the side of the basket into one of two compartments; another five enter their compartment though a custom gate. We’re flying in the Easy Access Basket (EAB), the first accessible commercial balloon in Australia; and after a quick check from Kiff Saunders, our pilot and the Director of Global Ballooning Australia, we rise above the city into the just-light sky.
Kiff, short for Christopher, grew up in western New South Wales and was on the path to aviation from a young age. He gained his gliding licence three weeks after his 15th birthday.
“Ever since then my life has blown with the wind,” Kiff says. “It’s taken me all over the world.”
In the late 1980s, Kiff began driving cars for a new operator flying balloons out of Sydney. Unsurprisingly, he was inspired to get his commercial ballooning licence.
He spent time working for a Tasmanian company, flying for them in Devonport, then bought the company in 1991 and moved it to Mansfield, Victoria.
“My business model was that if I flew two people, that would be enough to feed me for the week,” Kiff says. “I used to run an ad in The Age that was about an inch wide; that was my marketing campaign.”
He found himself at the forefront of the ballooning industry and moved the business from Mansfield to Melbourne. When he was offered a short-term ballooning consultancy in Kathmandu, Nepal, he hired his first employee to run the business in his absence. Kiff now has 32 staff and some of his pilots have been with him for more than 20 years.
In 2010, Kiff was involved in a serious accident that left him with life-threating injuries and could have ended his career as a commercial balloon pilot.
“I had a head-on collision with a driver who was driving on the wrong side of the road,” Kiff says. “I came around a bend on my motorcycle and I woke up four days later in the Royal Melbourne Hospital.”
It took a year for Kiff to be able to walk unaided.
“I’d never been to hospital and then I was pretty much living in hospital,” he says.
It was during this time that Kiff gained insight into how physical limitations could affect his lifestyle choices. He wanted to make a difference for others; to pay it forward in the way he could do it best.
During his rehabilitation program Kiff met specialist injury lawyers Peter Burt and Clara Davies. He was their first balloon-flying client.
Together they funded the design and build of Australia’s first commercial accessible balloon and made a successful case to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to obtain an exemption against the regulations prohibiting the flight of people with physical disabilities in commercial hot air balloons.
“To build a basket with a door is completely structurally different, it affects the rigidity of the basket,” Kiff says.
The EAB was released in 2012, joining Global Ballooning’s fleet of 25 commercial balloons. The EAB features a door, as well as customised seating, a harness and a grab handle. Passengers with disability are asked to share their experience with a carer, friend or family member.
“One lady I flew had cerebral palsy. She said to me afterwards it was the first day of her life that she really felt the same as everyone else,” Kiff says.
Our crew lands at Yarra Bend in Melbourne’s north east and we all pitch in to pack up. Everyone is buzzing from the flight.
Abe Makoto was accompanying his long-term client and vision-impaired friend Shimada Kiyoko, who loved her experience. “It was amazing,” she says.
“It is her first time in a hot air balloon, so it is very exciting,” Abe says. “We are on holiday from Japan and we love Melbourne.”
Kiff has flown in 12 countries, including Japan, Nepal, Canada, Europe, China, the United States, Qatar and New Zealand.
In 2006 Kiff set an Australian altitude record, taking a balloon up to 32,963.9 feet (just over 10,000 metres). This is about 10 times higher than he takes commercial balloons in Melbourne.
“The nicest part about my work is that I deal with people who are happy and joyful,” Kiff says.
“That first experience of being lighter than air is almost like the earth is falling away from you.”
Kiff loves what he does and will continue flying passengers while also having his own adventures.
“It’s a rich life,” he says.
Did you know?
The first humans to successfully fly did so in a hot air balloon in 1783, way before the airplane was invented in 1903.
The fabric (balloon) section of a hot air balloon is called the “envelope”. To rise, the envelope is heated to a temperature greater than the ambient temperature.
Propane, the same gas that is used in BBQ gas bottles, is often used to generate the heat in the envelope.
Balloon pilots can control the balloon accurately. Experienced pilots can land within metres of their downwind target, even after travelling several kilometres.
images Getty Images; courtesy Global Ballooning
Global Ballooning operates in Melbourne and the Yarra Valley; go to globalballooning.com.au to book and find more information.