Fear of heights is the #5 top phobia in the world (after fear of spiders) but the best way to get over it is to take a relaxing hot air balloon ride over the beautiful landscape near Barcelona, Spain. Nicolas Schwartz is the co-founder of Ballooning Barcelona and he doesn’t bat an eyelid when he’s cruising along in a giant balloon filled with hot air. In fact, he revels in the experience and loves sharing with people the beauty and serenity that is hot air ballooning. Just image floating effortlessly on the wind without the intrusive whirring of an engine – in fact, the only things you hear are farm animals in the fields below. Taking his passion to new heights, Nicolas is also a ballooning instructor who holds the current French Balloon Champion title. And, because of his standings at the World Balloon Championships, he’s now considered among the best 10 pilots in the world! We caught up with Nicolas between flights to find out how he discovered his niche as a balloon pilot and what it’s like to cruise above the countryside at 3,000 feet.
I was born in a balloon basket! My father got involved in the ballooning world in the late 70’s, so I was always around hot air balloons as I was growing up. I decided to be a balloon pilot when I was 18 years old, and the great air adventure has continued ever since.
How did hot air ballooning progress from being a hobby to form the basis of your career?
Ballooning has been a hobby of mine for a very long time, and that was how I gained my experience and knowledge. When I moved from Paris to Barcelona city, I wanted to create my own business, and I figured it would be a great idea to combine my hobby with my career. It was really as simple as that!
I like sharing experiences with others, so guiding balloon tours came very naturally to me. The ballooning world is a big family of people who love adventure and discovering new worlds with new pupils.
How did you get into competitive ballooning?
Ballooning competition is a very different way to operate a balloon flight. It requires discipline, patience, experience, accuracy, and it requires a very good team. It all started when a friend put me up to the challenge. It had been a decade since two pilots had won the National Championship back to back, and he asked me, “Do you think you have what it takes to change it?” My response was, “Maybe. Let’s try!”
Where has ballooning taken you across the globe?
I have traveled all around Europe with my balloon – almost everywhere! I have also been to the US and Brazil where I flew over some amazing countryside. It’s a great way to discover a country!
What does a typical day look like for you on a balloon tour?
You start early in the morning, before sunrise, and meet your team and passengers for a quick breakfast and first contact. Then we do a last check of the weather report and give our passengers a briefing about the balloon ride. We move to the launch area, prepare the balloon with the help of our passengers, and then we inflate it and board our ‘adventurers’ for a one-hour flight. Afterwards we celebrate with a good picnic meal and a champagne toast. In the afternoons, we do all of the administrative work and maintenance of the balloon equipment, and then it’s back home to return to normal family life.
Going on a balloon tour in a new landscape without a local guide would be like going to a movie without sound. Guides talk about their passion and experiences, and we share emotions with our customers.
Winning my first French Hot Air Balloon Championship in 2008 was certainly a career highlight. Also placing 4th in my first Hot Air Balloon World Championship in 2010. From a guiding perspective, it would have to be when we organized a group balloon ride for more than 240 participants. We operated 25 balloons at the same time – the biggest group ever organized in Spain.
What is the best part of your job?
Flying of course!
What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had on a guided tour?
Flying under snowfall was very unique. The balloon was traveling faster than the snowfall, so we were going downwards and it looked like the snow was falling upwards. Such a bizarre experience!
Best balloon tour you’ve ever led?
It’s difficult to choose only one, but I would have to say it would be the first crossing of the Alp Mountains in France. The landscapes are extraordinary and provide an amazing sensation of freedom.
I love being in the air, but the administrative work back on the ground can be frustrating. There is so much paperwork involved to operate and control a balloon, and we are obligated to follow the same rules and guidelines as the big airline companies. I could definitely do without the paperwork!
As an experienced guide yourself, what do you believe are the benefits of hiring a tour guide?
Going on a balloon tour in a new landscape without a local guide would be like going to a movie without sound. Guides talk about their passion and experiences, and we share emotions with our customers. We open a new window to a new culture.
What does it take to be a good tour guide?
There are a number of features that make a good tour guide; they have to be positive, happy and experienced, and they have to be devoted to what they do. They also have to be generous, love their work, be empathetic and have great communication skills.
And finally, are there any questions which customers should ask their guide before going on a trip?
They should ask how long their tour guide has been doing their job. I usually respond “It’s my first time. Let the adventure begin!”