First black female hot air balloon pilot loves ‘floating on the clouds’

Ga-Rankuwa-born Semakaleng Mathebula had to strike a fine balance between a demanding job in the automotive sector and her passion, to become the country’s first black female hot air balloon pilot.

The University of the Witwatersrand graduate got her training from the Balloon and Airship Federation of South Africa (Bafsa).

“My first encounter with ballooning was as a marketing assistant for a balloon tour operator in Magaliesburg. After witnessing the balloons in person at the South African Hot Air Balloon Championships, I fell in love with the sport and used my time there to learn all levels of the business,” she said.

“Time has been the biggest sacrifice thus far. Having to balance the ballooning and a full-time corporate job takes away lots of time from friends and family. I am very blessed to have a support structure that is understanding and always willing to be part of my journey.”

One of the challenges is that the industry is highly dependent on weather conditions.

“Balloon flying is highly weather dependent and often, even after weather checks and all indications that the morning will be suitable for flight, the reality on arrival at the launch site states something different and results in a flight cancellation.

“When mother nature does favour us, we have an amazing time floating on the clouds,” she said.

Hot air balloon pilots will tell you that flying them is something that gets under your skin, a passion that ignites your soul – almost like the burners that keep their balloons aloft.

But pursuing that passion can also be a way to make a living. Balloon pilots with business savvy often turn what starts as a hobby into a side job that not only pays for the travel and expenses associated with ballooning, but can also build college funds for their kids, or act as a second income for their families.

And for those who hustle and have the good fortune of landing a corporate advertising contract (or two), it can become a full-time career.

But Mathebula will not be giving up her daily job as a customer resolution analyst just yet.

“In future I hope to open business operations which will highlight and support hot air ballooning tour operators. That, accompanied by a position on the Bafsa committee and additional funding will help me unlock further opportunities for more people to engage with aviation and the industry at large.”

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Kabelo Khumalo

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