hot air balloon ride

Hot Air Ballooning

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ABC's of Ballooning

By Ruth Ludwig

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the November 1995 issue of Flight Training magazine. It is a great overview of how balloons fly, what it takes to become a pilot, and why balloon flight is so addicting! It is reprinted here with permission.

We hung motionless over the lake. Vermont's fiery October foliage rolled down the hills around us, falling into the water and its reflection of the deep blue morning sky. A loud scream broke the silence. To the north, a bald eagle streaked toward us, exactly at eye level. He came to within a few yards of my passengers and me, circled us three times, and disappeared over the ridge. Such is a morning balloon flight.

Lighter-than-air was the first aviation, and is still the choice for many pilots more than 200 years later. You don't need an airport or a runway. If you own a balloon, you don't need a hangar or even a tie-down space, just a corner of your garage. Take off from your back field, or the parking lot at the general store (with permission, of course). Drift quietly along, experiencing little or no sensation of movement of height. Land on a freshly cut hayfield, or the softball diamond before the players even get out of bed.

How do balloons work?


Balloons are aircraft, regulated under the same Federal Aviation Regulations as every other category. Balloons are aerostats, that is, static within the air. Once a balloon is buoyant, it moves with the air mass in which it floats, no faster, no slower, no different direction. The pilot has altitudinal control, and can alter the balloon's course by finding an air mass going in a slightly different direction.

Propane burner heating the balloonA balloon has an envelope, basket, and sometimes a burner and fuel system. The envelope is the fabric part of the balloon, the bag that holds the lifting gas. The basket (traditionally wicker) is the passenger compartment. In a hot air balloon, a burner hangs between the envelope and the basket. It burns liquefied propane gas (lpg) to make an intensely hot and long flame, capable of heating a large volume of air very quickly.

The FAI identifies three classes of balloon: gas, hot air, and roziere (combination gas/hot air). A gas balloon's envelope contains a gas such as helium, hydrogen, or, in recent years, ammonia. To ascend, the pilot releases ballast (usually sand or water), and to descend valves out some gas. While gas ballooning is a beautiful, silent way to travel, it requires many hours and crew people to fill the balloon and is tremendously expensive because of the cost of the gas ($1,000 to $3,500 for one flight's helium).

Hot air balloons use plain old air as the lifting gas. By heating the air inside the balloon, the pilot makes that air less dense (lighter) than the outside air, and the balloon rises. As the internal air cools, the balloon becomes heavier, and descends if the pilot doesn't add more heat. Fuel for a hot air balloon flight may cost $10 to $50.

Combination gas/hot air balloons, called rozieres, use a small burner to heat air inside a cone-shaped space surrounding a gas balloon cell. The warm air heats and expands the gas, adding more lift.

In this article, we'll be look at hot air ballooning, since that's where nearly all balloon pilots begin their training.

Next: Getting Started

Hot Air Ballooning
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