Frequently Asked Questions
Here is an interview with Ballooning in Tuscany founder and former pilot Robert Etherington and you will find an extensive list of further FAQs below.
Q. What is the most unusual or beautiful experience you have had while ballooning?
A. There is a very special pinkness to the light of a Tuscan dawn. It suffuses slowly out of the greys and deep purples of pre-dawn, and anticipates the arrival of a special moment: the Dawn Rush. (This is not a stampede of late balloonists!) It is a little rustling of leaves on trees, a gentle movement of air as the first rays of the sun strike the ground. This is the perfect moment to be airborne, a gentle swelling of the balloon envelope and the first indications of which direction we are going to take. It happens regular as clockwork here in Tuscany, and is part of our daily cycle of living here, in tune with the seasons and the waking and sleeping of the wildlife in the area. It is a humbling moment, rather as when Mole has his Vision in "Wind in the Willows"!
Q. Did you ever see anything funny or bizarre, or just beautiful, that you could not have seen from the ground?
A. The first time that I saw a jet flying below the balloon was terrifying, but also bizarre. Us in an open basket at 20,000 feet, and 250 passengers hermetically sealed in a tube flying at 500 mph and 5000 feet below us and unaware of our existence! This strange experience came as we were flying over the Alps, a breath-taking event that remains engraved on my memory: 280 miles in just under 3 hours, and we landed without a breath of wind 150 yards from a restaurant after a 10-minute vertical cold descent from 12,000 feet! Whew!
Q. Have any of your clients had unusual or quite vivid fears of flying? Have you had to deal with any panic-stricken clients? If so, how do you do that?
A. Most people have a little nervousness to deal with if it is their first balloon ride We spend a few minutes giving clear instructions on what to do and what not to do ("Don't get out without telling the pilot," etc!). This allows most people to come to terms with their fears. The first ten minutes of a flight is usually so entrancing and breath-taking that they forget their nervousness and by the end they say, "I'm so glad that you persuaded me to go. I wouldn't have missed it for the world," or similar. My admiration, however, was for a stout German who had won a prize flight in Tuscany His wife wouldn't come anywhere near the balloon but he was determined to overcome his fears - and he was terrified! He spent the whole flight with gritted teeth holding on with both hands, his head fixed in a grimace, eyes on the horizon! It was only on his second glass of fizz (the "Survivors' Toast") that he relaxed enough to say, "Thank you,that was great!" Great guts I think. I particularly remember a delightful American couple. She a fun-loving dizzy blonde and he a gun-toting detective with the narcotics squad. He was almost paralysed with fear! She kept on saying, "Come over here and let's have our photo taken," and he would say, "I can't move my head!". However, the sequence of delicious views and perspectives finally loosened him up and he was able to enjoy the last half of the flight fully. They sent a lovely thankyou note! The fear seems to be a combination of things - the unknown, the fear of flying, the lack of brakes and a steering wheel, etc. People generally know if they suffer from vertigo, and they often suspect that they will do so in the balloon. In fact, this hardly ever strikes. And there is an easy solution if you do begin to feel strange. Just look out at the horizon as if from the top of a hill. I think that there has to be a moment of transference, when the passenger places his or her confidence in the pilot. Until this happens the passenger will probably continue to be nervous at the expense of properly enjoying the flight.
Q. Have you seen people visibly relaxed and calmed by the ride?
A. The stability of the basket in flight is a surprise to many. It is an ideal platform for film cameramen for example. After the noise and kerfuffle of take-off the immediate peace and gentle movement through space is a great surprise. One vicar in England described it thus: "It was as if we stopped moving after a bit, and God started to crank the little wheel that moved the whole Earth along below us." Rather apt I think, as there is no wind on your face (you go with the wind) and little impression of speed. One party of English wives (their husbands wouldn't come!) told me that I had to persuade one of their number who was wobbling. I did so and they all got up at 3.30 AM in order to drive 100 miles and be at the launch site for dawn. There were general nerves amongst the assembled company of husbands, wives, and children, and squeaks of excitement as we took off; but the extraordinary peace and gentleness of the dawn light and landscape calmed all the ladies down, and we had a memorable flight over forests and valleys until we landed in a clearing into the arms of the families and chaos ensued again!
Q. What is it like to be a balloon pilot?
A. I remember a moment with a German TV company, as we brushed through the tree tops and back down into a valley to look at some deer. The interviewer asked me, "So this is all you do, just fly around in the sky all day?". To which I replied rather too glibly, "I had to work hard to get a job like this." It was meant in a slightly ironic sense, as obviously it is a very pleasurable way to earn a living. However, rather as when you sit down in a great restaurant you are not aware of the large number of people that make it possible for your dish to be served so exquisitely and so perfectly by your waiter, so with ballooning we try to mask the mental and physical effort involved in getting four people airborne on their chosen day, with the champagne breakfast all perfectly ready for presentation at the drop of a hat in any field, vineyard, or forest clearing! From strict control by Civil Aviation Authorities, Air Traffic Control, manufacturers tests, pilot checks, medicals, and all the bureaucracy involved, to the efficient administration of bookings, to the nitty gritty of gassing up every day, keeping the kit in good order, and simply being pleasant and accommodating to a seemingly endless string of new faces and characters - there is never a dull moment! But of course the great plus is the daily challenge of having to face up to yet another perfect dawn, another exquisite flight over a legendary landscape, and yet another glass of champagne. Life grinds on!
Q. How long is the hot air balloon flight?
A. A hot air balloon ride in Tuscany with us lasts for around one hour, depending on weather conditions and suitability of landing sites, but you should allow at least three to four hours for the whole ballooning experience.
Q. Where do you fly from?
A. We operate hot air balloon flights in Tuscany, a beautiful region of northern Italy, and our main launch site is in an enchanted valley at Montisi which is 10 miles west of Montepulciano and 8 miles due north of Pienza on the road to Trequanda. We also sometimes schedule flights from a site near just south of Siena to the north.
Q. When do you fly?
A. We schedule hot air balloon rides in Tuscany seven days a week from Mid May to Mid October, depending on weather conditions. Our balloon flights usually take place in the morning shortly after sunrise and we usually meet at the launch site at 6am.
Q. Why do balloons generally fly early morning?
A. This is when conditions are best for ballooning. During the main part of the day the sun heats the ground which in turn heats the air above causing thermals or columns of rising air. These thermals cause up-drafts and downdrafts which affect a pilot's ability to safely control the altitude of a hot air balloon.
Q. How high will we go?
A. Around 1,000ft to 2,000ft (305m–610m) but sometimes up as high as 3,000 feet (1050m) – although this depends on airspace restrictions and conditions on the day. Even at a few hundred feet the views are incredible and over 1,000ft you can start to see for miles around.
Q. How far will we fly?
A. Hot air balloons can't be steered in the normal sense, so they travel on the wind with skilled pilots controlling the altitude by heating and venting the air inside the balloon. How far you'll fly depends on the wind speed and on how long it takes the pilot to find a suitable landing spot. You could fly a relatively short distance or as far as 15 miles (24km).
Q. Where will we land?
A. As hot air balloons travel on the wind, you never know where exactly you're going to land which makes it all the more exciting. The pilot will start looking for a suitable landing site after around 45 minutes. The retrieval crew will track the balloon on the ground and aim to arrive shortly after landing. After the balloon is packed away they will transport you back to your meeting point.
Q. What is the landing like?
A. Flying in a hot air balloon is a very serene experience while in the air, but it is an adventure activity in the great outdoors and sometimes on landing the basket can tip and/or drag along before coming to rest. This is how balloons have been landing for over 200 years and is perfectly normal. The balloon and basket are designed for your comfort and safety throughout the flight. During landing you will be in the safe, seated landing position within the basket as instructed by your pilot. Many people say the landing is their favourite part of the flight.
Q. Can people come with me to watch?
A. Spectators are welcome but they will need to make their own way to the launch site where there may not be toilets or other facilities. We would not recommend that spectators try to follow the balloon by road for safety reasons.
Q. What should I wear?
A. We recommend clothes suitable for a walk in the country depending on the time of year and on the specific day you are flying. The temperature in the air is similar to on the ground. Generally comfortable layers are a good idea, plus a cap or other hat because of the radiant heat from the balloon's burners. Sensible closed shoes or trainers are essential. Usually passengers are asked to help with the inflation and deflation of the balloon so we also recommend you wear clothes which you don't mind getting a little dirty just in case.
Q. Can I bring a camera?
A. Yes, you can bring a camera, binoculars or camcorder as the balloon makes an excellent platform for photography. They must not be in metal cases and they are carried at your own risk.
Q. How big is the hot air balloon?
A. Our hot air balloons vary in size but the largest towers at over 100ft tall or seven storeys high once inflated and takes around 250,000 cubic feet of air to fill.
Q. How many passengers are there in the balloon?
A. Our hot air balloon baskets vary in size. Our standard balloon rides use large baskets which carry up to 10 people but we also have balloons for 2 – 16 people. The balloon basket is split into compartments with between two and four people in each, so you have your own space and can enjoy an intimate experience with your friend, family or partner. We also have smaller balloons which accommodate just two passengers and the pilot for our exclusive flights.
Q. Can anyone fly in a hot air balloon?
A. Children must be aged seven or over and at least 4ft 6ins (1.40m) tall. Under 16s must be accompanied by an adult. Passengers must be physically able to climb over the side (4ft 6ins/1.40m high) into the basket with the steps provided, stand unassisted for an hour and adopt the seated landing position. They should also be sure they don't have any pre-existing medical conditions which could be affected by the ballooning experience and seek medical advice if unsure. Anyone weighing over 20 stone (127kg/280lbs) will be required to pay a supplement. We are unable to fly passengers who are pregnant or have recently had major surgery.
Q. Can I fly the balloon myself?
A. No, unfortunately not. Our pilots are all qualified and highly experienced and we think it's best to leave the actual flying up to them. However, they will be happy to answer questions about how they got into flying balloons and how it all works.
Q. Is hot air ballooning safe?
A. Hot air ballooning is an extremely safe activity which is regulated and Ballooning in Tuscany is licensed in Italy for commercial passenger balloon flights by both the British and Italian Civil Aviation Authorities. We follow strict safety guidelines and use the latest ballooning equipment. Our pilots are highly experienced and hold full commercial balloon licences.
Q. What about insurance?
A. We are insured for public and third party liability up to £10million (£12million). You may wish to check with your holiday insurance to ensure it covers activities like hot air ballooning.
Q. Why would a hot air balloon flight be cancelled?
A. Hot air ballooning is weather dependent and sometimes pilots will cancel flights because the weather conditions are unsuitable and potentially unsafe. Unfortunately this is unavoidable. This can be because of rain, strong winds, poor visibility, very wet ground conditions or the possibility of thunder storms.
Our pilots make their decision to fly based on the most relevant and up to date forecasts available. Sometimes the actual conditions may be different to what was forecasted, but we feel it is important to always put safety first.
Q. What happens if my balloon flight is cancelled?
A. If we have to cancel your flight because of weather or other reasons outside of our control, we will do our best to re-arrange your flight during your vacation. If we are unable to do this then you will receive a full refund within three working days of the flight date.
Q. What if I want to cancel a balloon ride?
A. You can cancel your booking by calling or emailing us in line with our cancellation policy:
> You can cancel up to 30 days before the flight date and receive a full refund.
> If you cancel within the final 30 days up to the day before you will receive 75% of the amount paid.
> If you cancel after 12noon the day before the flight you will be charged 100% of the amount paid.
Don't forget—ballooning is a weather dependent activity so if the flight has to be cancelled and cannot be rearranged at your convenience then you will receive a full refund within three working days of the flight date.
Q. Have we answered all of your ballooning questions?
A. If not, please and we'll be happy to help.