Flying high: 44-year-old becomes SA’s first black air balloon pilot

Komane Harold Tjiane is South Africa’s first black hot air balloon pilot. Picture: Supplied

Komane Harold Tjiane is South Africa’s first black hot air balloon pilot. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 23, 2023


“What I love most about hot air ballooning is seeing the smiles that it brings to people’s faces, and the feeling of freedom that comes with being up in the sky.”

It took him 23 years to realise this dream, but today, Komane Harold Tjiane is a qualified air balloon pilot – and the first black balloon pilot at that.

Now, the 44-year-old Limpopo man is working towards achieving his commercial balloon pilot licence, which he hopes to earn “soon”.

Getting to where he is now, however, has not been a smooth or quick journey; at times it has been particularly difficult and challenging as Tjiane struggled through unemployment, small part-time jobs, and financing trouble.

“I come from a small village called Thabakhubedu in Limpopo, where I went to school and finished my matric in 1999. I wanted to be a Chartered Accountant but I did not have the finances to further my studies. Plus, although my marks for accounting were good, my mathematics marks were not brilliant so this did not help the situation.”

Tjiane embarked on a few short courses in areas like admin and computers to help him gain employment, but still could not find a job. So he moved to Gauteng in search of opportunities.

As fate would have it, once there, he was introduced to the world of hot air ballooning by a friend, and got a job as a crew member – which is ultimately a general worker. While carrying out this job packing and unpacking hot air balloons, he also took on other “piece-meal” jobs, including being a waiter.

Two years later, in 2002, Tjiane experienced his first ride in a hot air balloon.

“The experience was marvellous. It was an awesome feeling being up there. But even before I went up I had fallen in love with ballooning.”

Picture: Supplied

His passion was obviously evident to his employers and colleagues as he secured a full-time position at the company in 2003, after he got his driver’s licence. The next stage of his journey took him 23 years.

“I had done every other kind of work to do with hot air ballooning and eventually felt that the only climax I could have was to actually become a pilot. But I had people telling me that I could not do it, especially as a black man.

“This made me want it more.”

While some people, including other pilots, did encourage him to pursue this goal, the lack of finances again got in the way. So, in 2015, Tjiane started looking at ways to get educational funding, and met many people at organisations that were in positions to assist with transformation and skills development. He went to meeting after meeting, pleading his case, but was always told that they were unable to help him.

“I watched them helping other people but they could not help me,” he says, recalling the frustration.

Backed by the Balloon Airship Federation of South Africa, Tjiane eventually received a grant from the Department of Sport and Recreation, and, in 2019, started his studies to become qualified as a balloon pilot. He underwent medical and fitness testing but then the process slowed down in 2020 due to Covid.

“I went from pillar to post as I could not get appointments to do my practical exams, but after Covid it all started moving again.”

As part of his training and qualification, Tjiane had to study meteorology, learn about different equipment, study laws relating to the air, learn about radio communication with other aircraft and airports, and have 16 hours of practical instruction and observation. He was awarded his licence in 2022.

“Being the first black male in South Africa to achieve a free balloon private pilot licence feels great. I feel honoured and privileged. I truly feel like the impossible became possible.”

His next journey is towards earning a Class 1 commercial balloon pilot commercial, and to do this he is being assisted with a R100, 000 donation from the RE/MAX Foundation. Adam Fillmore, owner of Air Ventures, where Tjiane is employed as a Crew Chief, says he will aim to complete at least 10 hours a month, thanks to this financial donation.

Tjiane has, so far, completed 25 hours of solo flying time and needs to reach 100.

“I am doing very well.”

But what does he love most about being a hot air balloon pilot? The fact that hot air ballooning “brings lots of smiles to faces” and gives him a feeling of freedom being up in the sky.

“This feeling is out of this world, I can’t explain it. Every balloon flight is different and it makes people happy. Seeing that happiness makes me love what I do.”

He adds that he is “very grateful” to everyone that has contributed to his achievements thus far.

“This is not the end, just the beginning of a new chapter. Now, my career and future certainly looks bright. I thank you.”

Adrian Goslett, regional owner and chief executive for RE/MAX of Southern Africa, says the agency is “incredibly proud” to have supported Tjiane on his journey towards realising his dream.

“His story is a true inspiration to others. We wish him all the best with the many flight hours to follow.”