We get questions every day about hot air balloons, after all, we schedule beautiful hot air balloon rides with the top operators in the country every day. One question we are often asked as well the pilots who work with us, is “how do hot air balloons steer?” and the answer might surprise you. The short answer is, they don’t. But we want to go into more detail for you so you can be fully prepared on your next sky-high adventure.
If you have never flown in a hot air balloon, then the idea that a hot air balloon doesn’t steer can be hard to wrap your head around. Let’s start with the basics of hot a hot air balloon works to answer this.
How a hot air balloon flies
Hot air balloons are a lot larger in person than on any picture you have seen. These “graceful giants” move slowly across the sky and can maneuver up and down. This is done through the use of hot air and wind current navigation.
When you take a hot air balloon ride, you will see that the pilot has a lot to prepare for and getting the balloon inflated is one of the very first steps. The air inside the envelope (another tricky word for the balloon itself) is heated to a temperature around 200 degrees using burners which inflates the hot air balloon. The skirt (or closest part of the envelope to the burners) is coated in a special fire-resistant material to allow for all of that hot air to pass easily by that part of the envelope without causing a fire.
While tied down, the pilot and passengers are let aboard the basket and then the hot air balloon is untied and allowed to rise. Once at the right altitude (depending on the wind), the pilot will turn the heat up or lower it throughout the flight to ensure the balloon stays at a constant level. This also proves to provide safety and guarantee that the hot air balloon ride will never just descend on its own. The hot air never escapes the envelope so the hot air balloon will continue to rise if not controlled by the pilot.
When a balloon ride is coming to a close the pilot will lower the heat level of the burner to allow for colder air to come inside the envelope. He or she will also open what is called a parachute valve. This is a piece of fabric with the ability to open and close by control of a pullable line, letting out some of the hot air. This makes the hot air balloon decrease in buoyancy and begins the slow descent to the ground.
So how does it steer to find a landing spot or to go towards specific areas for the riders to see?
There is a fairly complicated process by the pilot before taking off for the day that involves the checking of weather patterns, wind direction and available spots to land in the area. Hot air balloon rides generally last around an hour before needing to be set down, so several miles are covered while in the air. When the pilot looks at all of these things he is basing his calculations on how fast the wind is blowing, in what direction and how those two things will get him to the desired landing site. Hot air balloon pilots always have a backup plan, though, because this is just a prediction and the wind can change mid-flight so several landing sites are often selected before the day begins.
The wind steers the hot air balloon in a way by providing a general direction it is going to blow the balloon during the course of a balloon ride. Pilots typically encounter several wind direction changes while in the sky and they use the specific altitudes that these directions take place in to “steer” the balloon.
While this may seem inconvenient for a person on a hot air balloon ride, as you can’t really be guaranteed to see something specific, it is also a more adventurous event when you take a hot air balloon ride. Every flight is different because every day’s winds are different. So no two rides will be the same.
While hot air balloons do not steer using traditional methods, you could say they are guided a little by the wind and a little by the pilot using the preparation of wind direction research. Each flight is a unique experience and every flight is a one-of-a-kind memorable event. Each flight has a predetermined destination and even if the pilot cannot land there, the point is that all pilots who work with Soaring Sports are experts at landing safely anywhere needed.