Eyes in the sky for 20-year-old balloonist

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By Hunter Calder

Liam McGirr started chasing hot air balloons when he was eight. And now at the age of 20 he has his license to fly them.

He says, he enjoys the unique experience of the balloon and being up in the air "keeps me sane."

"Ballooning for me is just a sport where we have the air to ourselves. It's not like any other form of aviation, we are floating along with the wind."

And this week - during Balloons Over Waikato - he has the opportunity to test his skills against 20 other pilots coming from as far afield as Brazil, Canada, Australia, China, United States of America.

Mr McGirr says it's a week where he gets to fly every day and be challenged by others at a competitive level.

"It gives us the opportunity to get a taste of the competition side of ballooning, it's a way of us having a stepping stone into it (ballooning) and competing on a level with some international pilots who have a much greater experience and we can learn things from."

Australian Balloon Pilot Mark Mitchell has co-piloted with Liam previously and says he likes to support emerging pilots.

"We just have a fun little competition with the pilots so the lesser experienced ones get to have that feel of flying around other balloons."

And it's a sport that brings people together.

"It's a team sport you can never really do ballooning really on your own, not without having a lot of other people around you and helping you out."

Since the Carterton balloon tragedy in 2012 - safety briefings have taken on an extra significance.

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Balloons Over Waikato Flight Director, Martyn Stacey says he's responsible for everyone's safety on and off the ground.

He says the balloons speeds will vary depending on the wind and pilots will only fly to their own capabilities but never higher than 2000 feet.

He checks all pilots are correctly licensed and their gear is certified and reiterates safety messages to pilots.

"We emphasise it more, it's always been there and pilots are always conscious of (safety) but it doesn't hurt to revitalise that little grey matter inside them."

And Mr McGirr says he's well attuned to his aircraft and ensuring he flies the balloon at a steady descent or climbing level.

"We're always looking around for potential hazards such as power lines, buildings or trees or other aircraft that may be in the airspace, you're also keeping an eye on the weather."

The five day event costs more than 900-thousand dollars to run.

Organiser Michele Connell says it one of New Zealand's larger scale free events.

"It's iconic for the region, iconic for the city, it's classed as a hallmark event for Hamilton."

The not for profit event kicks starts on Wednesday - more than 130 thousand people are expected to witness the spectacle.

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