Have You Ever Wondered

How Hot Air Balloons Work?

Have You Ever Wondered

How Hot Air Balloons Work?

Not all who wander are lost!


Have you ever wondered how hot air balloons fly? It is a common question asked of hot air balloon operators. How is it possible that a fabric balloon can lift a basket full of people 2,000 miles into the air? Whether you ask out of pure curiosity or you wish to operate a hot air balloon; it can be a quite interesting occurrence. There are three main components that make this possible; the burner, envelope, and the basket. So, let’s take a look into the flight process of hot air balloons. Have you ever viewed a hot air balloon from inside the basket? The flight process starts with burners; most balloons are equipped with dual burners. Although, there are hot air balloons that have a single burner. The gas filled jets release propane into the burners firing hot air into the attached balloon. The rising hot air gets trapped inside the balloon and causes it to inflate. Wouldn’t the hot air melt the balloon?

Normally, hot air, fire, and fabric would be a volatile mix. Hot air balloons are constructed with a fire and heat proof skirt. The skirt may even be referred to as the throat. If you really look, it almost resembles a throat. The throat is located just above the burners, it’s made of a material called Nomex which is used to protect the envelope of the balloon. What happens if the propane tank runs low on fuel during flight? That is definitely a valid concern. No worries of an emergency landing or panic-stricken passengers. Hot air balloon operators attach extra fuel to the outside of the basket. They are there for a quick change out during the flight.


The Envelope

From Mailing Letters to Ascension

Who would have thought something as simple as an envelope could do such a big job. Well, that is definitely the case for hot air ballooning. In order to take flight, you will need to snag some hot air. Hence the title, hot air balloon riding. Interesting concept right? Once you have captured some hot air it generally accumulates in the envelope which is the balloon. How are you supposed to catch hot air? Easy, through the use of propane and burners but we will dig deeper into the subject later. Have you ever heard of a fabric called ripstop? Ripstop is a really lightweight but durable nylon material. When you think of nylon the word flimsy may come to mind. Ripstop is not as flimsy as you may think! The surprisingly strong synthetic material is sewn together in squares to prevent the spread of rips and tears. Hence the name ripstop. The envelope is strategically sewn into gores which are air- tight vertical sections. Well, there are some holes located in the balloon. The most obvious hole is located at the throat allowing the envelope to be inflated. There is also a hole located at the top of the envelope also known as the crown. There is a small hole known as the parachute vent which aids in the decline and smooth landing of the hot air balloon.


The Basket

A basket is for hot air balloon rides … not just picnicking

What comes to mind when you think about a wicker basket? Do you picture yourself gliding through the air? Well, it is a part of the everyday adventure of hot air ballooning. Now that you have chosen hot air balloon riding as an adventure be aware there are no plastic baskets, metal cages or harnesses. It is a long time tradition to ride in a wicker basket. The light, soft and durable baskets are positioned directly beneath the burners and envelope. These baskets are constructed in such a way to absorb the impact in the case of a slightly abrupt landing. The only ropes and chains involved in hot air balloon riding are the eight used to connect the burners to the basket. Strong load- bearing tapes are mounted vertically along the seams between the throat and crown of the envelope to the burner. No need to be harnessed or strapped to another person. Just climb into the welcoming wicker basket and enjoy the excitement of your Soaring Sports Hot Air Balloon Ride.


The Process

Just how easy is it to fly a hot air balloon?

Together we shall touch the sky! There is a series of steps the pilot takes to ready a hot air balloon to go airborne. Following these pre-flight steps will have you gliding through the clouds in no time. One of the first steps consists of laying the envelope out along the ground. Laying it out makes it easier to handle and allows you to check for any abnormalities. Next, connect the envelope to the burners and basket, inflate the balloon with cold air using a fan. Yes, it’s a hot air balloon but it’s not yet time for that step. Once the balloon is inflated, remove the fan and fire up the burners. Now it’s time to heat up the air enough to go soaring through the big beautiful sky. Presently, your soaring 2,000 feet above ground level the only control you have is over the rise and fall of the balloon. The balloon rises when you turn on the burners, heating the air in the envelope. Opening the parachute vent allows the hot air to escape and cool air to enter thus allowing the hot air balloon to descend. You have mastered the up and down motion. Give yourself a pat on the back. Not so fast, you now have to learn how to steer.

Imagine you have lift off, your steadily climbing higher and higher you are having the experience of a lifetime. In a flash, you ask you realize you don’t know how to steer. Don’t worry, it was just a daydream. Steering a hot air balloon is all about the wind! Have you ever seen someone lick their finger and hold up in the air to determine wind direction? Wind direction plays a huge role in directional steerage! Changing the temperature in the envelope and wind course will assist in flight direction. It is important for the pilot to determine the direction of the wind beneath the balloon at altitudes other than the altitude of the actual balloon. The most common technique used is by spitting or spraying shaving cream down outside of the basket. The pilot will watch as it falls for speed and any possible turns that may take place. Be sure to watch for any other visual clues such as flagpoles, smokestacks and more. Prior to the flight, it is important to get a weather forecast which will include upper-level wind forecasts. Most pilots send up a pilot balloon filled with helium called a pibal prior to launch will give wind information. The wind is useful in providing flight directional information for piloting your hot air balloon.

Determine the drift and when to respond. When you are flying a hot air balloon there is a delayed response that must be controlled. The burner blast valve plays a substantial role in delaying and ending the balloon’s descent. Hot combustion exhaust expands forcing cooler air out of the mouth and into the envelope. This act increases resiliency and lightens weight over time. The rate of descent is pretty quick. It can take 30 seconds or more dependent on the power of the burner or how cold it has become. The delay requires foresight from the pilot. So hone in on your psychic hot air balloon powers. There are no tips and tricks to maintaining temperature equilibrium for efficient flight level. Your mission as a pilot should be to light the burner at the right time and speed so that the balloon continues to slowly drift at the desired altitude. Master this skill and you will be an extraordinary hot air balloon pilot.


The Landing

What goes up, must come down

Time to land? Wondering how to get back? Sure, you can return from the landing site by bike, walking or any other method. Most balloonists utilize a chase vehicle with room for equipment, chase crew, pilot and all passengers. The chase crew aid with the landing of the hot air balloon. The pilot lowers a drop line so the crew may guide the balloon into a tight space. It would be useful for the chase vehicle to be equipped with a trailer. A pickup or van may be the first choice, consider the amount of room that will be needed for the crew, equipment, pilot, and passengers. That’s a lot for one pickup or a minivan to handle. The ability to easily maneuver may win big with you, think about your load size and whether everyone will fit comfortably. A vehicle with a lift gate would be a wise decision. The envelope itself can weigh more than 250 pounds. Let’s not ruin the zen feeling you just received during your hot air balloon expedition. Which way did they go? Where is the chase vehicle? You need the ability to communicate with the crew. Two- way radio communication between the pilot and the chase vehicle is key for assistance with landing the hot air balloon. Cell phone use is not permitted while the hot air balloon is in flight due to telecommunication laws. So, keep it powered off and in your pocket. Although, cell phone usage while in flight is permitted in emergency situations.

The passengers applauded with excitement! You’re not piloting a 757 but what pilot doesn’t want to perform a perfect landing? Winds blowing more than 5 mph at ground level can be quite troublesome. When the basket is traveling at a fast rate it will drag for a while and may even tip over. Safety is your top priority. Prevent your flight crew from getting pinned between the basket and any objects, educate them about the importance of not standing on the downside of the balloon. Here is a tip for you. Small valleys and behind a line of trees protected from the wind are the best spaces to land a hot air balloon. Upon landing, the envelope is deflated, detached and packed into it’s carrying case. The basket and burner are separated and loaded onto the chase vehicle for transport. Congratulations, you have just learned how to successfully pilot a hot air balloon. You just learned a new relaxing and adventurous hobby. Don’t forget to tell everyone you know.

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