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Flights of fancy

April 28, 2004 09:21 IST

Aerosports enthusiasts will soon be able to go on cross-country hot -air balloon safaris. Come October and the Delhi-based Sky Master India Ltd, the newly-found company, will start a 40-km hot air balloon ride over the Yamuna with sightings of river dolphins and a champagne lunch by the river side thrown in.

And this will be just one of the flight adventure offerings from Anil Thapar, managing director of Sky Master India Ltd.

On the cards is a flying college for pilot wannabes, for which Thapar has already raised $2 million from an overseas company. Besides this, he also plans to promote joint ownership of aircraft among corporates.

Thapar, who is expecting clearances for his short-haul balloon expedition this week, informs that the flights will originate in Meerut. Depending on the wind speed, the flight will take two to three hours to land on the three-km long stretch on the banks river Yamuna, near Tigris, a small village in UP.

"Typically, we'll follow the westerly winds and the flights will take off before sunrise when the wind is light," says Thapar, the former managing director of aerosports company, Alpha Aviation.

Meanwhile, Thapar has also been taking tours around the Jim Corbett Park to conduct hot-air balloon safari across the 60 km reserved forest.

Currently, the former Mig 27 pilot with the Indian Air Force, has taken a temporary lease to operate out of the Meerut air base which boasts of a 1.5 km runway.  For the past three years, he has been conducting classes in para sailing, microlight flying and powered hang-gliding in Meerut.

With a customer base including school children and corporates such as GE and McKinsey, Thapar thinks aero adventure is waiting to take wings in the country.

"I have more than 20 students on the waiting list, but for lack of aeroplanes I have not been able to offer training programmes," he says.

Thapar has, so far, logged more than 750 hours of microlight training flights and conducted 7,500 hours of para sailing jumps in the past three years.

Currently, he trains on four aircraft -- X Air Microlight, Superblanik L23 and two Quicksilvers -- that are owned by different companies.

To fulfill his dream, Thapar plans to open flying academies in Dehradun and Pantnagar, in partnership with the India-born Australian millionaire, Barney Fernandes.

The Australian partner once owned several dozen aircrafts as well as two airfields in western Australia. "We want to fashion the training schools after Fernandes' China Southern West Australian Flying College based near Perth in Australia.

Another part of the business is to promote co-ownership of aircraft. "The concept is popular in the west. Here we will help companies select the aircraft, get the licences, maintain it for them and use it for training when it is not being used by them," he says.

Among his first clients is William Bissel of Fab India who plans to buy an aircraft jointly with others.

However, indulgence in aerosports does not come cheap. While a four-hour ballooning ride will cost about Rs 15,000, a 40-hour beginner's training programme will cost Rs 160,000, plus a Rs 30,000 registration fee.

While Thapar admits that flying has a long gestation period and aero sport business takes times to turn around, it's a gamble he's willing to take on. "My vision is to set up an academy which offers all aero sports activities under one roof," he says.
Maitreyee Handique in New Delhi