In February 2012, the innovative recreational company made its first flight over Addis Ababa. Since the beginning of Abyssinia Ballooning’s operation, more than 30 balloon flights have followed and over 300 Ethiopians and foreigners have enjoyed ballooning in Ethiopia.
Abyssinia Ballooning (AB) is an initiative of the Dutch ballooning company Virgin Balloon Flights (a licensee of the renowned Virgin brand of the Englishman Sir Richard Branson) and a local Ethiopian business partner. Research on feasibility of flight areas in Ethiopia started early as the end of 2010. When the flight areas turned out to be good to fly balloons an extensive business plan was written and this plan was awarded a 3-year matching grant of the Agentschap NL, which is part of Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs grant program to help Dutch Entrepreneurs to start innovative businesses in emerging markets together with a local business partner.
Ballooning is based on the most elementary principle that says, hot air rises because hot air is lighter than cold air as the density of the molecules in hot air is less than the density of cold air. ‘The pilot heaths the cold air in the balloon after which the balloon gently rises and when heated enough it will lift off’ Chief Pilot and founder Bram van Loosbroek explains. After take-off the pilot can only use the wind to fly towards a landing field in Ethiopia mostly 20-30 kilometers from the launch field. The pilot can control the height above the ground in centimeters, but for distance and direction the pilot solely relies on the wind. In Addis Ababa the wind at about 700 meters above the ground is regularly stable and comes from the East with a speed of about 25 kilometers per hour. ‘The weather conditions here are perfect for ballooning. After 1 hour of flight we descend (mostly at the New Ambo Road outside Addis), the winds on the ground are nice and calm which enable us to make very gentle and smooth landings here’ Bram says.
Virgin Balloon Flights operates 15 balloons in The Netherlands since 1984 and all knowledge about ballooning is used in Ethiopia to establish a safe and high quality recreational service here. ‘Ballooning is extremely safe, given experienced people handle them and make wise decisions on whether to go flying or not’, Bram van Loosbroek states. Like in Kenya and Tanzania where almost 30 balloons fly daily, balloons in Ethiopia can only fly early in the morning at 06.30 AM (International Time) because after 08.00 AM the weather becomes to turbulent to make safe and controlled flights.
Investments in balloon operations are quite extensive. The cost of a single hot air balloon is about ETB 2 million separate from the investment cost of a chase truck, minivan for the passengers and more. Also operational cost and fixed cost are quite extensive. ‘People seem to think that ballooning is big business, but when I explain about the costs involved they understand that much more is involved than they thought of before’. Bram says. Also ballooning is new in Ethiopia and the first 12 months of operation generated quite a big loss as the service and its safety needs to be known to people. Now slowly our business is growing and hopefully we will manage to break-even in 2013 and make the first profits in 2014 and onward. Ballooning can be a successful business but it needs time to get known and develop.
Quick growth in ballooning can lead to taking unacceptable safety risks.’ Bram added. Affirming Abyssinia Balloon's safety commitment, Bram says, ‘Safety always has to come first in aviation’. Abyssinia Ballooning expects to operate 5 or 6 balloons in Ethiopia by 2017.