Up above the world so high: Spanish balloon pilot flies over Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

RIYADH: Spanish hot air balloon pilot Francisco Castillo has fulfilled his bucket list goal of flying over AlUla and exploring the beauty of the Kingdom’s desert.

Castillo’s love for hot air balloons began at the age of 14 when during a lunch break at school he and his classmates saw one flying overhead before landing in a field nearby.

“Back in the day, a hot air balloon was a rare sight, more associated with Phileas Fogg’s adventures than real life. Hundreds of kids ran flat out toward it, absolutely fascinated by the marvelous scene we were witnessing. That day left a mark on me!” Castillo said.

Two years later, when he was old enough to work, he started saving money from summer jobs to become a hot air balloon pilot.

“I had to wait until I was 20 to start my training as a balloon pilot, and at the age of 22, I set up my own company, bought my own hot air balloon, and started offering hot air balloon rides,” he said.

After having flown in over 20 countries, Castillo said he was fascinated by the landscape of the Kingdom, as it is home to one of the largest deserts in the world. 

“Every flight is nothing short of spectacular!” he said, describing AlUla as a “museum where time stands still” and a place that “preserves the echoes of ancient civilizations.”

When Castillo was offered the opportunity to fly with Hero Balloon Flights in Hegra, he could not let the opportunity pass him by.

His favorite places to fly have been Jaipur in India, Cappadocia in Turkiye, and AlUla in Saudi Arabia.

“The Rajasthani villages, surreal landscapes, lesser-known palaces, and magnificent forts, as well as the close interaction with the local Rajasthani culture and the vibrant and friendly local communities, make this experience unique … Cappadocia, in Turkiye, is a region with unique rock formations and outstanding sceneries,” he shared. 

“And it would be inconceivable not to include in this list the Hegra Archaeological Site with Hero Balloon Flights in KSA … The landscape of AlUla from a hot air balloon is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen, and I consider myself privileged to be flying here. The harmony between the endless sandy scenery, whimsical rock formations, clear blue skies and sublime sunrises make this area a paragon of unmitigated beauty.”

Flying restrictions, however, are a challenge that hot air balloon pilots have to contend with, said Castillo.

“Especially if there are large commercial farms underneath us or densely populated areas, we need to steer clear of them … I have to admit, it is truly comforting when you land in someone’s field, and they come out to greet you with tea, coffee, biscuits and cake rather than an angry red face,” he said.

Since the beginning of his career, Castillo has seen major developments in technology that have facilitated the hot air balloon experience.

“Nowadays, hot air balloons incorporate advanced navigation systems, including GPS, altimeters, and variometers. These instruments allow pilots to navigate more accurately, monitor altitude, and track weather conditions in real-time, enhancing the overall control and safety of the flight,” he said.

For those worried about being in the air for an hour, Castillo reassures his passengers that hot air balloons are some of the safest forms of aviation.

“However, hot air balloons move at a rate equal to the surrounding environment, so there’s no chance of motion sickness of this kind. Passengers floating in a hot air balloon are often astonished by the lack of turbulence, with no perception of moving up and down during the flight as they drift with the breeze, making it a very serene experience,” he said.

Castillo says he has witnessed interesting encounters in his career.

“It’s not a surprise that hot air ballooning is synonymous with romance, and every pilot loves it when we get a sky-high proposal,” he said.

“However, there was a time, a few years back, when I was piloting a balloon with 20 passengers, and one of the passengers proposed to his significant other, and she said ‘no.’

“The awkward silence that reigned during the remaining 45 minutes of the flight and the discomfort on everybody’s faces marked this flight as my least favorite ever, and I have never been so happy to land.”

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