The ultimate guide to hot air balloon safaris in India

The mention of hot air ballooning conjures up images of floating over Cappadocia in Turkey, but the activity is picking up in India too, from Jaipur and Pinjore to Hampi and Agra

February 02, 2024 03:14 pm | Updated February 03, 2024 11:31 am IST

Skywaltz Balloon Safari at Amber Fort

Skywaltz Balloon Safari at Amber Fort | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At the crack of dawn, when twilight peers through the winter haze, a big balloon prepares to kiss the sunlit sky. On it, ride the early birds pointing their viewfinders to the panoramic landscape from some 500 metres above the ground. Chandigarh-based Ishmita Marya, 21, sums up the experience in a Bollywood song of the 1990s, Aaj main upar, aasman neeche.

Ishmita Marya took her first hot air balloon ride in Pinjore

Ishmita Marya took her first hot air balloon ride in Pinjore | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On January 17, she took her first hot air balloon ride in Pinjore, around 23 kilometres from Chandigarh, with Jaipur-based air ballooning company Skywaltz Balloon Safari. “I arrived in Pinjore at 7.30am, the crew ignited the burner and began to fill air inside the huge balloon. The pilot, Imo Singh, gave us few instructions, which included not leaning outside the basket, maintaining requisite weight, bending the knees and keeping the back straight while landing etc. When the balloon took off, we were at 2,300 feet above sea level in no time,” she recalls. A little while after, the balloon propelled further up by 500 feet and Ishmita spotted the sunrise. “Soaked in sunlight, the sky looked beautiful; however, it was the land underneath that caught my attention in the backdrop of the Lower Shivaliks.After getting our first flight certificates and some group photographs, our cab arrived and we departed with a promise to fly again,” she shares. The ride, including pick and drop, cost ₹15,960.

Ishmita Marya gets a certificate for flying

Ishmita Marya gets a certificate for flying | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Like Ishmita, many are now thronging Pinjore where Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar inaugurated a hot air balloon safari project in November last year. Pinjore happens to be Skywaltz Balloon Safari’s second operational spot. Its founder Naveet Bali is planning to expand to Hampi soon.

In business

“In 2002, I was in Germany for a business conference, when I saw a hot air balloon from the taxi. The driver told us it is catching up in Europe. That’s when the seeds of running this business in India were sown,” informs Naveet. On January 2, 2008, Naveet started Skywaltz under his company E-Factor Adventure Tourism.In the last 15 years, Skywaltz has flown nearly one lakh passengers besides marking its presence at the Taj Balloon Festival, Kashi Balloon Festival, Araku Balloon Festival and Meghalayan Age. “We are presently doing the Bundelkhand Gaurav Mahotsav,” says Naveet. He is one of only two hot air balloon operators whose companies are registered with the DGCA. The other one is Gajendra Singh Rathore, who founded Tiger Balloon Safaris while looking for an auxiliary adventure activity at his property Pench Jungle Camp in Pench Tiger Reserve.

Tiger Balloon Safaris at 2011 Rann Utsav

Tiger Balloon Safaris at 2011 Rann Utsav | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“We started in 2010. Landing at a desirable spot was a major challenge because the reserve is a forested area and is skirted by farmland,” says Gajendra. The company, after a two-year run at the reserve, was itching to grow, especially after tasting success at the 2011 Rann Utsav where it facilitated a balloon ride for the then Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. “Then we started getting into events. I realised that hot air ballooning did better at events as getting regular passengers is a tad difficult,” adds Gajendra.

The company, he says, started operations in Goa in 2016, after bagging a tender floated by the State’s Tourism Department that year. “After the first two or three years, business started picking up. We offer one flight in the morning, which lasts 45 minutes to an hour. We get about five to eight passengers a day and charge ₹11,000 per person; on weekends, the number of passengers reaches eight or 10,” he says. The company has four balloons.

Tiger Balloon Safaris in Pench Tiger Reserve

Tiger Balloon Safaris in Pench Tiger Reserve | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Both Naveet and Gajendra rue the strict regulations of the DGCA, which views hot air ballooning as any other aviation company. “They give a permit and NSOP (Non Scheduled Operator’s Permit) for operating balloon flights and the scheduled operators have to comply,” says Gajendra. There are other bottlenecks too, like the availability of DGCA-approved pilots. Gajendra shares that there are only seven-eight DGCA-approved pilots, but they too are not commercial pilots. “So, we have to source pilots from Europe, the cost of which runs high. Even then we have to seek permission from DGCA for them,” he adds.

There are other hot air balloon companies across India, including Manali, Jaipur and other tourist destinations, offering tethered flights, which clock 10-15 minutes, and are relatively easy on the pocket, starting anywhere between ₹1,200 and ₹1,500. However, neither the companies, nor their balloons or pilots are registered under the DGCA. Shoaib Zaidi, owner of Fly High Adventure, says, “We make our own balloons. Tethered flights are stationary unlike traditional air balloon rides and are tied to a rope. The DGCA is not involved because we do not fly above 400 feet. There’s no particular policy for us. We operate in Manali and Nanital and have even participated in Brahmaputra Carnival in Guwahati,” he says.

The flying squad

Captain Sangram Prakash Pawar

Captain Sangram Prakash Pawar | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Originally from Pune, Captain Sangram Prakash Pawar is content with his choice of profession — a hot air balloon pilot. For one, he gets to travel the world. Also, he makes a handsome sum while working just four hours a day. He is now in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, flying over UNESCO Heritage Site Hegra. “I am the only Indian pilot here. Soon, I will be headed to Dubai for three months,” he says. Since ballooning is a seasonal activity, which lasts from October to April in West Asia and Asia, and May to October in Europe and the US, Sangram is seldom out of work. “I’ve flown in France, Spain, the Philippines, Oman, the US and Nepal. I flew the first-ever hot air balloon in Oman in 2019,” he shares.

Sangram earned his commercial pilot licence at Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2018 after completing a four-month course. “In India, my licence number is 24, means that since 1947 till date there have only 24 balloon pilots in India, and the country has maybe just six to seven pilots now. Unlike aeroplanes and helicopters, balloons have no breaks, accelators or any steerage controls. So, we fly in the direction and at the speed of the wind, which means the landing place is undecided until five minutes before landing time. The pilot has to understand weather, and wind speed and direction. Ballooning contributes to only .5% of the total accidents in the history of aviation. The best time to fly one is during sunrise as the wind is stable,” he adds.

Captain Hugo Hall

Captain Hugo Hall | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Captain Hugo Hall, who is in India, flying with Skywaltz, couldn’t agree more. “My worst flight was with an ex-girlfriend at home in the UK. We took off in the middle of the day and got something called wind shear, which is a change in direction. It squished the balloon and it plummeted into a field; we survived, though,” he recounts.

Hugo lists Meghalaya as one of his top destinations. “It’s forested and mountainous. The sight of waterfalls makes it all the more amazing. Flying in a forested area is challenging, but that is what makes it fun,” he says. Hailing from Bristol, Hugo took to ballooning at the British Balloon and Airship Club.

An air balloon pilot makes somewhere between $4,000 to $8,000. “The highest paymaster in the profession is Australia — $7,000 a month,” says Hugo. Sangram adds, “There are two types of payment models: In France, for instance, I was paid per flight. In Dubai, it’s a fixed salary — the pilot gets to decide.”

The global Indian

Arun Karthik and Swetha took a ride in South Africa’s Pilanesberg National Park in September last year

Arun Karthik and Swetha took a ride in South Africa’s Pilanesberg National Park in September last year | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

While there are several destinations in India that offer hot air balloon rides, Cappadocia in Turkey tops the global list and is followed by Wadi Rum in Jordan, Masai Mara in Kenya, Queenstown in New Zealand, Albuquerque in USA, Vilnius in Lithuania, Nile River in Egypt, Loire Valley in France and Guadix in Spain. Coimbatore-based couple Arun Karthik and Swetha Arun Karthik took a ride in South Africa’s Pilanesberg National Park in September last year, which cost them ₹27,200 per person. “We started at around 4.45am from our resort, The Palace of the Lost City, in Suncity. It was about sunrise and we saw the sky turn red. We had a 360-degree view of the entire land, its flora and the animals in the wild,” he says. The ride lasted 30 minutes, but the excitement of it and the experience left a lasting impression on Arun and Swetha’s minds and hearts. “We want to do it again,” he adds.

Captain Sangram Prakash Pawar fills hot air in the balloon just before the flight

Captain Sangram Prakash Pawar fills hot air in the balloon just before the flight | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Fly away to
Jaipur (Ongoing)
Take-off location: Samode (pick and drop is included in the package)
Time of flight: 6.30am
Cost of flight: ₹13,500 + Tax
Chandigarh, Pinjore (Ongoing)
Take-off location: Kalka (pick and drop is included in the package)
Time of flight: 6.30 am
Cost of flight: ₹13,500 + Tax
Hampi (February 5 onwards)
Take-off location: Maurya Helipad (pick and drop is included in the package)
Time of flight: 6.30am
Cost of flight: ₹13,500 + Tax
Agra (February 19 onwards)
Take-off location: Hathi Ghat (pick and drop is included in the package)
Time of flight: 6.30am
Cost of flight: ₹13,500 + Tax
Goa (February 10 onwards)
Take-off location: Asolda Village Panchayat Ground
Time of flight: 6.30am
Cost of flight: ₹12,000
A tourist flies with Skywaltz Balloon Safari in Jaipur

A tourist flies with Skywaltz Balloon Safari in Jaipur

Guidelines for passengers
1. Persons aged five and above; there’s no upper limit as long as the person can stand for an hour and take landing position for a few minutes.
2. Not recommended for pregnant women or those who have had surgical procedures in the recent past.
3. No smoking and drinking on balloons.
4. No sharp objects, weapons or flammable objects allowed on board.
Caution to the winds
Capt. M Chouhan, chief of staff at Skywaltz Balloon Safari, warns passengers about unauthorised, homemade balloons. “These joyrides do not have certified pilots or authorisation from aviation authorities. Charging ₹1,500 per person for a risky five-minute experience, these balloons compromise passenger safety. Tethered to a ground object, the flights raise concerns about structural integrity,” he says.
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