Flying High Over Wine Country
Hot air ballooning has been around since 1783 when a rooster, a duck and a sheep went for a 15-minute test ride in France under the supervision of scientist Francois Pilatre De Rozier, but it wasn’t until the 1960s when an American named Ed Yost came up with the brilliant idea of using propane as a fuel source, that the sport really took off.
So, when Graeme Scaife went on a balloon ride with his airline pilot friend in the late 1980s in the UK, ballooning was still a rare occurrence – something that not a lot of people did. Graeme was hooked after that one exhilarating experience and went on to found the second balloon flight company ever established in the UK and operate the leading balloon flight company in Australia.
In 1986 Graeme got his licence and began flying privately. He ran a photographic company, but with the advent of digital technology, his business was changing rapidly, and he was looking for another opportunity. In 1987, with his new love of flying balloons and the fact that it was still a fledgling activity, he decided to try establishing a business, The British School of Ballooning, providing hot air balloon rides from a number of sites across Hampshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex and the business boomed.
In 1999 Graeme purchased Hunter Valley Ballooning, a similar business to the one he ran in the UK, from a friend diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, his friend passed away six months after the purchase. Graeme was now operating out of Australia as well as the UK. In 2007 he purchased his biggest competitor, Balloon Aloft, from Peter Vizard. Balloon Aloft was the original balloon flying company in Australia.
Around the same time, Matthew Scaife, Graeme’s son, started working in the business, enabling his father to spend six months of the year in the UK and six months of the year in Australia. Over time, running the UK outfit became exhausting because it was like having to start the business afresh every six months, and so, after nearly 30 years, the decision was made to focus entirely on Australia.
Balloon Aloft is very much a family company. Matthew has been flying since he was six years old and grew up with it being a central part of his life. He gained his licence at 21 and is now three times Australian Balloon Pilot Champion. He met his wife in 2005 when working in Canberra for a different company. Nicola had left university and had taken a job as part of the ground crew. She fell in love with the sport (and the man) and went on to challenge the male-dominated industry by becoming the Women’s World Champion twice over.
“My goal is not only to be the best female but also to be a competitive pilot in open competitions and to challenge the men,” said Nicola. “Every day, I think about how lucky I am to have my office in the sky and to be able to work in what is my passion.”
The couple were married in 2012 and moved to the Hunter Valley in 2013. They now have two children - Hugo, eight, who took his first flight at age two and a half and his little sister Wren who is four years of age and began flying a year ago.
“No doubt the kids will get their licence one day,” said Matthew.
“They are in such a privileged position to be able to do so; I can’t imagine them not flying.”
Balloon Aloft flew out of the Hunter Valley and Camden right from the beginning, but expansion was always on the cards. In 2014 they started flying out of Mudgee, and in 2020 they established themselves in Byron Bay. COVID has created a feast or famine situation for the company. With so many people unable to travel overseas, more and more were focusing on regional tourism. This created a backlog of bookings followed by nothing during lockdowns. Typically, in any given year, the company would fly approximately 11,500 people, but from July 2020 to July 2021, they flew 14,000 people across all their sites.
The company has 32 balloons in total. They’re made by Kavanagh Balloons in Sydney, who is one of the best manufacturers in the world. Balloons cost from $50,000 for a small private balloon to upwards of $200,000 for big commercial balloons. Matthew claims that he doesn’t take much time off work – working in the business during the week and flying on the weekends. There are 68 people on staff with 18 pilots.
“I love what I do for a job – it doesn’t feel like work,” said Matthew.
“It’s so rewarding to be part of other people’s special occasions. Everyone is happy and excited. I feel very privileged to be able to share in these moments. Mind you, the 3am wake up calls and the weather challenges keep me on my toes.”
This passion for the job is shared by Sam Huggins, another one of Balloon Aloft’s Senior Area Pilots. Sam moved to the Hunter Valley area to study to be a high school teacher at Newcastle University. He took a part-time job on the ground crew at Balloon Aloft and promptly fell in love with balloon flying. His boss offered to teach him to fly in 2014, and he’s never looked back. With just six months left to complete his degree, he was offered the chance to take a job as a pilot.
“It was a tough choice,” said Sam. “The position was vacant and needed to be filled, and there was no guarantee that if I said no, there would still be a position waiting for me after the last six months of my degree. I took the leap, didn’t finish my degree, and have no regrets. I simply want to fly balloons every day!”
“I love it because it’s the best time of the day – watching the sunrise thousands of feet off the ground, interacting with clients who are all in good spirits. They are there to have a good time and have lots of fun. It doesn’t feel like it’s work.”
Sam also enjoys his other role at Balloon Aloft in landowner relations. It is part of his role to liaise with local farmers and vineyards to enable the company to use their land for flights. Location is critical to the balloon flying experience, and according to Sam, the Hunter Valley is one of the best locations to fly in.
Every year the company puts on the Hunter Valley Balloon Fiesta, usually over the long weekend in October. The festival includes up to 30 hot air balloons from all around the country, taking off together at sunrise and filled with awe-struck passengers in what is a once in a lifetime experience. Back on the ground, the celebrations continue with gourmet food and wines. The highlight of the Balloon Fiesta over recent years has been the Hunter Valley Night Glow, where tethered balloons are lit up in a vivid display of fire and colour, all choreographed to music. The family-friendly event includes market stalls, live music and fireworks.
The Hunter Valley Balloon Fiesta is not, however, taking place in 2022. The World Balloon Championships have been scheduled in Slovenia over the October long weekend, and with a team of six talented Balloon Aloft pilots participating in the competitions, the event is unable to proceed this year.
“The past two years have been cancelled due to COVID,” said Matthew. “We’re devastated to have to cancel a third year in a row, but the good news is that we promise the 2023 event will be back bigger and better than ever before.”
In the meantime, passengers are filling up flights seven days a week, weather permitting. The one-hour flights take off at sunrise and fly over the spectacular vineyards of the Hunter Valley – floating over the picturesque landscapes of Pokolbin, Lovedale, Rothbury or Broke at the height of 2000 feet or more. Back on land, passengers celebrate with a sparkling wine tasting and gourmet breakfast at Peterson House and Restaurant Cuvee. Passengers also receive a complimentary digital photo album as a record of their special event. The whole experience takes about 3.5 to 4 hours, and prices start at $289 per person. Exclusive flights are also popular, particularly with loved up couples – perhaps to pop the question or celebrate a private moment in their lives. Exclusive flights are available from $1699. There’s even a special proposal package that includes flying in a love heart balloon, sharing champagne and chocolates during the flight and a proposal banner. For a small group experience for 4 to 6 people, prices begin at $2800 – a great teambuilding exercise for work colleagues, a small hen experience for brides to be or a family birthday celebration.
Whether you’re a local or a visitor to the Hunter Valley, the sensational experience of floating high above an awe-inspiring landscape needs no special occasion as an excuse. It’s the perfect way to make your visit to the Hunter Valley memorable or celebrate where you live.
To find out more about Balloon Aloft or to book,