First Saudi balloon pilot has a license to thrill

JEDDAH: The first Saudi to become a licensed hot air balloon pilot in the Kingdom is ready to give back to the community after his “blessed and lucky” three-year training experience.

Abdulrahman Saleh Al-Wohaibi’s certification on July 27 by the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation marked the completion of a goal that began in Australia in 2019.

He told Arab News that his dream of becoming a hot air balloon was sparked while completing his master’s degree in Australia three years ago.

“I remember that day in 2019. I was watching a group of hot air balloons drifting slowly across the sky. The beauty of seeing the balloons moving peacefully almost serenely on the horizon is what hooked me the most. I was so close that I could hear the sound of its dramatic flame gas burner as it filled the balloon with heated air,” Al-Wohaibi said.

Al-Wohaibi has always had a liking for high altitudes, and had completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering, as well as another bachelor’s degree in airworthiness management.

Abdulrahman Saleh Al-Wohaibi’s certification on July 27 marked the completion of a goal that began in Australia in 2019. (Supplied)

“I was very curious about the balloon experience, although I have been to many other adventure experiences, this one was the most beautiful; it was so peaceful,” he said.

Since that day in 2019, Al-Wohaibi was inspired to explore the culture and history of the hot air balloon and embark on his training journey.

“This is what I always wanted to do, and most importantly, it is what I want to share with my loved ones in the Kingdom,” he said.

Al-Wohaibi holds two private pilot licenses: One for fixed-wing aircraft, issued by the UK in 2015, and another issued by Australia in 2019.

In 2020, he was licensed to fly hot air balloons by the Australian Balloon Federation as well as the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Completing his training and gaining registration “was indeed an honor and has allowed me to explore more and gain a new experience,” Al-Wohaibi said.

He passed the Australian test in his first attempt and finished training in just five weeks, breaking a record for the fastest training time in the country.

“Completing the course in such a tight timescale was a challenging achievement; normally trainees would take up to 12 months to complete the course. However, I am so thankful for all the family support, as the training site was a three-hour drive away, which placed some strain on my family and I was doing my master’s degree as well,” he said.

“I feel so blessed and lucky as I was taught how to fly with the Australian national champion Paul Gibbs in the high country of Australia’s Victoria state. Gibbs is a highly accomplished pilot, with numerous awards and qualifications in the ballooning field.”

Al-Wohaibi is certified to fly larger balloons carrying up to 36 passengers and is allowed to travel within fly-in airports, “Getting qualified is just the start — mastering flying, acquiring new skills, and transferring the knowledge and experience is the goal, ” he said.

And Al-Wohaibi is now ready to give back to his country and community by introducing people in the Kingdom to the culture of hot air ballooning, so that they can see the natural beauty of Saudi Arabian landscapes in peace.

“I want to transfer the knowledge and experiences I gained to benefit those interested in this sport in the Kingdom,” he said.

Al-Wohaibi is also keen to train new pilots and start a tourism flight business, contributing to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.

As the tourism sector surges inside Saudi Arabia, Al-Wohaibi had the chance earlier this year to fly during a hot air balloon show in AlUla.

The first hot air balloon experience was brought to Saudi Arabia in AlUla in 2019. (Supplied)

The event was part of the AlUla Skies Festival, which brought more than 150 hot air balloon flights to the ancient site.

“I can see the drastic development of tourism and sports happening, and I think flying hot air balloons is a significant contribution for sure,” Al-Wohaibi said.

One of his main ambitions moving forward is to own a personal balloon, enabling flights through the “best locations” in the Kingdom and sharing the experience with friends and family.

“Having a good understanding of the weather, especially local weather and peculiarities, is crucial. Saudi Arabia features a very diverse meteorological environment, which in itself is a satisfying challenge,” Al-Wohaibi said.

“I will be launching from different cities around the Kingdom. I am also interested in being involved in as many international balloon events and competitions, nationally and internationally.”

The first hot air balloon experience was brought to Saudi Arabia in AlUla in 2019.


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