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Basically, a balloon flies because the air inside the envelope is hotter than the air outside (known as ambient air). Although some people prefer more technical explanations, it really is that simple! The burners heat the air inside and allow the pilot to control the rate of ascent & descent. When it’s time to come down, the pilot can either let the air in the envelope cool off on its own, or they can open a vent at the top of the balloon to let some air out – either way works. When it’s time to land, the pilot will open the deflation port all the way to spill the air out the top and deflate the balloon. The balloon will then lie on its side and patiently wait to be packed up by the pilot and crew.
The easiest way to is join the WAS Facebook Group and ask to come crew for a balloon. pilots will be delighted to have you come out and get involved the next time they go flying. The more help, the merrier!
It is impossible to directly control the direction a balloon travels relative to the ground. The only thing pilots can do is go up/down to find different winds that take them different directions. The balloon is always traveling at the same speed/direction the wind is pushing it. If you don’t have wind taking you where you want to go, then you go someplace you don’t want to be. Some balloons do have “rotation vents” which allow the balloon to be rotated (like screwing in a light bulb) but this doesn’t change where they travel.
Balloons like to land in open areas (parking lots, harvested grass fields, soccer fields, parks, etc.) where there are no obstacles, enough room to deflate and lay the balloon over, and where nothing on the ground (including crops) will be damaged. Balloons rarely land in the same location they take off from.
Yes. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates hot air balloons. Pilots must be trained and pass various tests in order to be licensed to fly a hot air balloons by the FAA. Balloon pilots must observe various FAA regulations, just like airline pilots.
Yes. A hot air balloon is a type of aircraft just like airplanes, gliders, helicopters, seaplanes, etc.
In order to legally fly a balloon, the pilot must obtain a pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration. There are two levels of balloon pilot ratings. The first is a private pilot. The pilot must have at least 10 hours of flight time in free balloons; must pass a written test, oral test and flight check prior to being issued a private pilot’s license by the FAA. The second rating is a commercial pilot. The commercial pilot must have at least 35 hours of flight time in free balloons; must pass an additional written, oral and flight check prior to being issued a commercial pilot’s license by the FAA. A commercial license allows the pilot to be paid to fly.
Most balloon pilots start learning about balloons and the flying process by crewing. Pilot training involves at least 10 hours of flight instruction, passing a written knowledge test, extensive ground instruction, and finally passing a flight examination with a Federal Aviation Administration examiner (also known as a Practical Test). You can learn more about crewing and pilot training on the Learn to Crew and Learn to Fly pages.
It can be both! The vast majority of W.A.S. pilots and crew fly for the entertainment value, adventure, fun, and comradery. The small balloons that are typically seen at festivals do not carry the number of passengers that most “balloon ride” companies use. Larger balloons (known as “ride balloons”) carry between 6 and 20 passengers, and are typically used by balloon ride companies. There are several balloon ride companies in the US, and yes, there are balloon pilots that make a full time career out of flying balloons. More about this on the Learn to Fly page.
Balloons come in various sizes. The size is determined by the number of cubic feet of air that can be contained within the envelope. Sizes range from as small as 30,000 cubic feet or as large as over 300,000 cubic feet. Most have difficulty relating cubic feet to something they are familiar with. A basket ball or shoe box is about 1 cubic foot in size.
Pilots and owners of hot air balloons may perform some routine maintenance on their aircraft, much like checking the air pressure or changing the oil in your vehicle. Maintenance requiring repair or disassembly of parts must be performed by licensed repair persons at licensed repair stations. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that every balloon undergo a complete inspection at least every year.
The balloon is prepared by spreading the envelope (the big fabric portion) out on the ground, with the basket attached to it and lying over on its side. A gasoline-powered fan is normally used to inflate the balloon with cold air until it is packed full, and then the propane burners are ignited to heat the balloon up. At this point, the balloon will slowly stand up, and then it’s the ground crews’ job to hold the basket down with their collective weight while the pilot continues his preflight checks and boards passengers. When all is ready to go, the pilot gives his crew the signal for “weight off,” and with a few more blasts of the burner, takes to the sky!
Winds are generally most favorable the first hours after sunrise and the last hours before sunset. The sun’s uneven heating of the earth’s surface causes strong, variable winds. In the morning, it takes a few hours for the sun to heat the earth’s surface enough to generate the thermal activity that creates wind. In the evening, the sun’s intensity has diminished enough to reduce winds to acceptable flight levels. Ideal winds to fly in are 3 to 6 mph. The temperatures are typically coolest in the morning which allows the balloon to use less fuel. There cannot be any rain or fog in the area, either. Balloons are not allowed to fly in the clouds.
Balloons operate through the basic principles of gravity and heat transfer. As air inside the balloon is heated, it rises. As the air inside the balloon cools, it descends. To make the balloon fly, an inflator fan fills it with cool air (cold packing), which is then heated by the balloon’s burners. When the air is warmed to the point it is able to lift the balloon, equilibrium is achieved.
New balloons can vary in size and amenities. A smaller sport balloon can run around $13,000 to $25,000 and can carry a pilot and up to 3 passengers. Commercial ride balloons are much larger and can run as much as $70,000 to $80,000 new. In addition, there’s always the cost of equipment (fans, radios, trailers, chase vehicles, etc.) in addition to the cost of the balloon.
A good ground crew can inflate and launch a balloon in fifteen minutes or less. It takes about the same amount of time to deflate and pack up the balloon after the flight.
Rip-stop nylon is the most common material. Polyester and other fabrics are sometimes used. The lower portions around the opening are usually made from a fire resistant material like Nomex, similar to what race car drivers and firemen wear.
Modern day hot air balloons all use propane – the same stuff many backyard BBQs use. Most balloons carry between 10 and 80 gallons of fuel, depending on the size of the balloon. However, the liquid phase of the propane is used directly instead of the gas phase. This results in the ability to get about 275 times the amount of heat in the balloon than if the gas phase was used.
Without the ability to keep the balloon hot, the balloon will naturally cool off and start to descend. Descent rates can become rather quick without fuel, resulting in a dangerous landing situation.
Each burner can produce approximately 20 million BTUs. Small balloons typically have one burner, and very large ride balloons may have up to four. Balloons usually add heat in short bursts (about 3-5 seconds each). Each burst of heat burns about 5 cups of propane and puts about 27,000 BTUs of heat into the envelope.
Yes! But those are gas balloons. Gas balloons are filled with helium (or more commonly hydrogen these days due to the cost of helium) and once filled, they are able to produce lift for days at a time. Gas balloons, therefore, are able to fly for thousands of miles – and many distance records have been set in gas balloons including circumnavigating the earth as well as altitude records above 135,000 ft. Hot air balloons, which are much more common, are limited to flights of just a few hours unless significant modifications have been made to carry more fuel.