Ipswich business with niche market floating high
WITH fewer than 70 commercial balloon pilots in Australia, it's not the kind of job you'll see listed the pages of a classifieds.
But for Floating Images' owner Graeme Day and his family, waking early to gauge the weather, driving to a park or field, unloading hundreds of kilos worth of equipment and firing up gas cylinders, is all in a morning's work.
That work takes the Days and their passengers to the skies, as Graeme navigates over the countryside surrounding Ipswich, the Scenic Rim and Somerset regions.
"When I went to school I never dreamed I was going to be a balloon pilot. It was at the in the right place and the wrong time," Graeme laughs.
"But for a lot of people that does happen, circumstances do lead you to doing things that you didn't think you would be doing."
Floating Images' current yellow and blue Discover Ipswich balloon envelope might now be a familiar sight after being launched earlier this year, but it was in skies across the world Graeme honed his piloting skills.
That journey though, did start close to home.
Graeme studied an Associate Diploma of Agriculture at Gatton. And back then in the 1980s, he had no idea how much that study would help pave the way for his future career as a hot air balloon pilot and play an integral role it in.
His sense of adventure took him abroad and he used his knowledge of agriculture to gain work, but piloting a hot air balloon was still a few years in the future.
"I still believe when you travel to a country you have to travel to heart of the country and the heart of any country is its agriculture. Because that's where it's cultural, it's social, its economics are and the feelings are," he says.
"You go to a city... it's a bloody big city and you don't get to find the opening arms and hearts of people.
"That's what I did. I worked in the country areas. Farming in Canada, landscaping in Canada and the same in Europe."
Following his family heritage, Graeme ended up in Scotland. Here, he made friends with a fellow traveller who invited him to visit her so he embarked on another journey through France and Germany.
"A friend of hers had a balloon company and they rung up and asked if he wanted to help the crew and we did," he says.
"It was a beautiful winter's day.
"I worked for that company for six months as crew and in that time there were discussions; they needed another pilot."
Graeme, who was working on a British passport, was asked to train as a pilot, as long as he hung around to work for the company.
"I was actually trained by a French tax office training scheme where they try to get people from a lower income to a higher income so they can get more tax," he says.
"I was the first person in France to be trained as a balloon pilot under that process."
Though not yet on the scene, this challenge is not lost on Graeme's now wife Ruth.
"He didn't know a word of French by the way so when he did his ballooning training in French he had to learn French to do it so he had the manuals with the French-English dictionary beside it," she says.
And it was a challenge for Graeme, despite his sense of adventure and experience travelling.
"I could do two or three words, dictionary, two or three words, dictionary," he says.
He spent six years piloting balloons through the skies above France.
"Spring, summer and autumn in Alsace but in wintertime we used to do flights over the French Alps and they were three to five-hour flights sometimes," Graeme says.
"I knew that I could I could make a business out of this. I saw other people doing it."
So he started his journey home.
"I came back home in 1996. I was supposed to work for a Brisbane balloon company but they got closed down by Civil Aviation Safety Authority," he says.
But Graeme was already flying over the Great Barrier Reef by the time he found out.
"I had faxed and emailed these guys saying 'look I am coming so if there's any problems just tell me and I'll stay here'," he says.
"So after a 22,000km journey I wasn't too impressed.
"I worked for them as crew once they got their licence and requirements back but I went back to France for another season."
This time his trip home was for good, settling on the Gold Coast for about three years.
"And then Ruth and I got involved," he says.
Ruth worked in marketing, including high-profile events like World Expo '88, before moving in to fundraising where Graeme's mother was among her staff.
Graeme was putting together marketing proposal for the Sydney Olympics involving balloons.
"(Graeme's mother) thought I could help Graeme given my background of World Expo '88 to put his proposal together to approach the Sydney Olympics," Ruth says.
"And I fobbed him off from '96 all the way through to January 1997.
"Because I was so busy with work it was pretty hard for him to get hold of me so eventually caught up Australia Day 1997. And I sat down with him and we went through everything he had done so that's how we met."
Hot air balloon rides are regularly used to orchestrate and celebrate romantic encounters, so it's no wonder Graeme would attempt to use his job to get the girl.
There was just one problem.
Ruth's fear of heights.
"Graeme was also working at that time down at the Gold Coast not only as a pilot, also worked as a pilot at the balloon walk down at Robina and I went down with the girlfriend to Robina for a bit of retail therapy," Ruth says.
"Graeme happened to be on shift that day and dragged me on under false pretences to show me what it was like and I didn't enjoy it one bit."
While she may not have enjoyed the heights of that day, she enjoyed the company.
They eventually married and added twins Matthew and Kaitlyn to the family right about the time Floating Images took its maiden flight over Ipswich.
"The first of December 2001. Six weeks before the twins were born," Ruth said.
Floating above the ground in a hot air balloon may not be for Ruth, but her expertise in marketing meant her a Graeme made a perfect business pairing.
And while that maiden flight was out of the question due to the pregnancy, Ruth occasionally battles her fear to take a trip in the balloon.
"I still have a reverence for the ground however when I talk to people who inquire that they have a fear of heights or my wife or my husband or daughter or whatever family member is afraid of heights, well I say I can identify with that," she says.
"And I tell them how I can overcome it.
"I choose not to look down over the edge but I can look out.
"Graeme is the one that does the height thing and pilot and the operational thing and I am in the office and I am quite happy to be in the office.
"But then again I'll go out in to the field as required to do the PR and marketing side of the things. I don't crew.
"I married into ballooning but thankfully there are two sides to the operation of the business."
Twins Kaitlyn and Matthew have been involved in the physical side of the business since they were two-years-old.
At first helping with trailers and cleaning up after flights, to being a part of the ground crew.
Flying in a hot air balloon is a gentle experience. It's smooth and silent yet thrilling at the same time. Like the business name suggests, you feel like you are floating. And while passengers may take this calm, yet awe-inspiring experience, as a sign of ease, behind the scenes Graeme is taking in the weather and the surrounds to ensure the highest safety standards.
"We have a check list. Also operating the aircraft, as well as fuel management, you're reviewing and making sure the winds are working with you in that aspect as well as passenger comfort safety and enjoyment," he says. "And commentary, there's so many aspects to it lot of people go this looks easy and you explain it and they say 'no, that's no easy, you just make it easy'," Graeme says.
"We have limitations; as a tour operator aviation we have an operation manual on how to run our business. And that's regulated by CASA. Whereas most tourism operators don't even have an operations manual."
The requirements to run a business involving an aircraft are extensive, from the training to the day-to-day operations.
"We even have to have a fatigue management manual, drug and alcohol management plan, all requirements under any aviation business," Ruth says.
"There's not a lot of businesses outside of the aviation industry have to have that, not even a doctor has to have a fatigue management plan.
"They should, but they don't.
"It ensures that you have the highest safety standards that you can possibly have and that you always have your passengers' safety coming first."
The stringent practices and desire for all of their guests to truly enjoy the experience mean the Days won't fly someone under the age of six-years-old but they have flown people aged seven to 98.
"People are normally doing balloon flights because it's a celebration of life. Be it a birthday, anniversary, wedding or proposal.
"We had a run of it at the end last year and we are still having it of 80-year-olds wanting to go on a balloon flight. I guess one of the benefits of doing it with us, we do the boutique ballooning, we do smaller numbers more inland and it's a protected area and Graeme can focus on that group of people," Ruth says.
"People want to celebrate some aspect of their life through something special and ballooning is considered as one of those memorable experiences that they want to tick off their bucket list. It's their life experiences list.
"It's interesting people are moving away from that materialistic gifts towards experience gifts."
"There's been a range, from the joys of weddings and proposals all the way to the other end of the scale where we have people who are celebrating life because they are going to pass away because they are terminally ill," Graeme says.
"When you have 18-year-old girls who are terminally ill, it's sad but you know you have given the gift of joy and that's a part of ballooning for me. You can't put a value on it."
With only about 20 commercial hot air ballooning operations in Australia, the Days hope Floating Images can continue to bring tourists to the city, and boost the wider economy.
"We're looking at the next five years and the future. I'm currently learning Chinese at the University of Queensland in Brisbane because of the Chinese market," Graeme says.
"We are so close to Brisbane, we are hoping to double our passenger capacity.
"That's good thing for Ipswich because not only do people see the positive and beautiful side of Ipswich it brings a lot of money in to the city.
"One in four of our passengers stay over in Ipswich. So if they stay over in Ipswich, they eat in Ipswich that night, do accommodation in Ipswich."