Winds determine a hot air balloons direction. Balloonists can steer a balloon, to a limited extent, by adjusting the balloon’s altitude and making use of different wind speeds and directions. The burners are used to heat the air and make the balloon rise. The pilot may stop “burning” the fuel to stay level before the balloon starts to descend. Venting hot air out the top makes you go down quicker. Pilots follow the wind patterns and adjust their altitude to move the balloon in different directions according to where they, and their passengers, would like to go.
The most popular size is about 55 feet wide and 7 stories tall, using close to 1800 sq. yards of nylon fabric, 3 miles of thread, a 1/2 mile of reinforced nylon webbing (load tapes), and holds about 90,000 cubic feet of heated air. “Special shape” balloons and commercial balloons’ can range in size from 150,000cf to 300,000cf, to accommodate larger baskets and more passengers.The size depends upon how many passengers the company is trying to fly at one time. Some balloons hold as few as one person others as many as 32 passengers.
You can get involved with a local pilot and a local balloon club like the Southern California Balloon Association or the Pacific Coast Aeronauts in Northern California. Many enthusiasts get their start as a member of a chase crew. If you live in Northern California or Sacramento’s Gold Country, e-mail us or call us to ask how you can become a member. You might earn free flight time and/or training as crew member!
Balloon pilots come from all walks of life. Anyone with the desire to learn to fly a balloon can become a pilot. Start by learning about balloons while working on a crew and/or taking lessons from a pilot instructor. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) will issue a balloon pilot’s license after you have gained the required experience, passed a written test, and passed a flight test with a FAA examiner.
Hot Air Balloons operate through the basic principles of gravity and heat transfer. As air inside the balloon is heated past the ambient temperature of its surroundings, it gains altitude. As the air inside the envelope cools or is vented, it descends. Pilots use wind layers at different altitudes to move the balloon from one direction to another.
The highest hot air balloon flight on record went to an altitude of 22,000 ft. However, the typical romantic or pleasure flight would fly from treetop level to a few thousand feet, depending on the wind speed and direction.
At least a crew of 3: 1 pilot and at 2 ground crew. Crews are very important to prepare for a launch, follow, and safely recover the balloon. Passengers often assist as crew. It’s all part of the fun.
Like cars and boats, new balloons vary in size and amenities. A new smaller sport model could cost around $18,000. These balloons typically carry the pilot and one passenger. Larger balloons that carry four to six persons in addition to the pilot will range in price between $20,000 and $55,000 (for envelope, gondola, tanks, and instruments). Used equipment is available. Big commercial balloons (10 to 15 passengers) and special shapes sell for market price making them quite costly.
The average hot air balloon (with a deflated envelope, a gondola or basket, 30-40 gallons of fuel in 2 tanks) weighs about 800 pounds. Special Shape and larger commercial balloons weigh thousands of pounds. Once inflated and in the air it will weigh about 2 1/2 tons!
As an industry, any reputable balloon company will charge between $175.00 and $275.00 per person. However, some businesses offer special gift certificates that could lower the price. Being FAA certified, hot air balloons are very expensive to own and operate. With the cost of: crew, chase trucks, aircraft maintenance and commercial insurance, balloonists strive to keep the cost to the passenger as low as possible. Back in 1786 it cost the U.S equivalent of $45,000 per passenger! Ballooning is less expensive than ever. Prices will vary from one Balloon Company to another, so it is best to contact the business directly regarding prices and offers.
After the balloon envelope is laid out, a gas-powered fan forces unheated air through the balloons mouth, filling the fabric and giving the pilot space to light the balloon’s burners. This is called cold inflation. After the envelope is filled, the balloon is stood-up by igniting the burners and heating up the air inside. That’s called hot inflation. After the envelope is over the basket, and the pilot checks his equipment, the passengers are allowed to board.
Hot air balloons carry 20 to 45 gallons of propane in stainless steel fuel tanks. The average flight uses roughly 30 gallons during an hour.
About Your Flight
The distance a balloon covers depends heavily on the wind speed in the area it is flying. The average pleasure or romantic flight can range anywhere from three miles and up to ten miles from the launch site.
Usually a balloon flight lasts about an hour. At an average wind speed of about 5 mph, a balloon will fly 2 – 8 miles. Ground crews follow the balloon, talking on the radio with the pilot. The balloon will land in an open area with the ground crew there to help recover the equipment and to take the pilot and passengers back to the launch site.
Some hot air balloons can hold up to 30 passengers. Here at Sky Drifters we have chosen to keep the experience personal and limit the size of our balloons to a maximum of four to eight passengers. Hot air balloons vary in both envelope and basket sizes. Contact the ride company you plan to ride with for questions regarding the number of passengers you will be flying with.
Weather is a very important factor in hot air ballooning safely. Winds both on the ground and aloft, temperature, pressure systems, rain and fog all play crucial roles in a pilots decision to fly. Most commercial ride companies require passengers to call-in the day before a flight to check weather conditions. If a flight is canceled due to weather, Sky Drifters will reschedule the flight for another day or may offer a refund if another day is not available. BEWARE of companies that sell rides that are NOT refundable if there is a weather cancellation.
Hot air balloons tend to fly in remote and rural areas, so it best to wear durable outdoor clothing. Closed-toed shoes, like boots or sneakers are a must, as the balloon might land in rough or wet terrain. Early morning flights might be chilly on the ground, but it is important to remember that it will be warmer inside the basket. It is best to wear layers, so you can adjust to a comfortable temperature. Long pants in both summer and winter are recommended to protect your legs from the cold and sticker bushes in the landing site.
Rolling Northern California foothills and heritage ranch lands! Depending on the flight direction, passengers will see beautiful vineyards, wild land conservation areas, lush green farms or all of the above. In the morning hours native wild life is incredibly active, giving passengers a chance to view herds of deer, coyotes and ducks among many other species. Bring your camera and plenty of space for pictures!
Winds are generally calm and 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 making afternoon flights unpredictable. In the morning, it takes a few hours 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 for commercial flights are 3-6 mph.
Every Balloon has a maximum level of weight it can carry. This weight is affected by the ambient temperature around the balloon and at what altitude it is flying. Before a flight, the pilot uses the passenger’s weight to decide how many people can go in each basket. Weight limitations will vary from one commercial ride company to another. Please contact the company you plan to fly with for the maximum weight of your flight.