Hot Air Balloon Rides, what happens?

What to expect on a hot air balloon ride. Several factors have made hot air ballooning one of the fastest growing adventure ride items and hottest gift tickets around in the last 20 years. With more than 70,000 passengers flown in the UK alone every year. Sir Richard Branson and his well publicized Atlantic and Pacific crossings and numerous round the world attempts. All kept hot air balloons in the public eye. The successful round the world flight of Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard caught the imagination of millions. Balloon operators in Africa have made magic carpet rides over the Serengeti and Maasi Mara ecosystem possible for many thousands of people. Perhaps this is why the people of Britain voted hot air ballooning as the number 7 thing to do before you die! A poll that certainly caused an upward blip in the number of passengers flown in the UK. Modern technology has also made taking a passenger ride in a hot air balloon much safer. Advanced burner designs, giving more powerful flames. Much better pilot lights that keep burning. Baskets especially designed for the carriage of passengers. Above all modern fabrics that are not only stronger but more able to combat the effects of Ultra Violet Light and mould and mildew. Yes the balloons just like your tent if you get it wet, rots. At this point I should admit that I am a hot air balloon pilot. Ballooning has been kind to me and taken me to all points of the globe. Australia, Thailand, France, England, Kenya and South Africa all balloon flights have similar requirements. Wherever you are in the world. I hope to be able to answer some queries and maybe allay some fears in this article. These are the questions I am asked all the time. Do you have a pilots licence? Yes balloon pilots have taken written exams just like their fixed wing friends but they have taken the flying test in a balloon instead. In some countries, notably the United Kingdom and Australia there are also fairly strict commercial pilot's licences and annual flying tests to be undertaken. (You've guessed it I have UK and Australian licences) Coupled with this in most countries the balloon company will also have to have an Air Operators Certificate. This or its equivalent is issued by the local aviation authority. An inspector will have checked all the aircraft and pilot paperwork and made sure that the company employs safety systems. Run a Google check on your particular country and if the person that you ring for a flight cannot assure you that all paperwork is in place don't fly with them. Better still ring the aviation authority ask for the person responsible for balloons because there will be one. Ask them if they know of the person you are going to contact for a flight. You would not believe the number of unlicenced operators there are out there. As a rule of thumb a pilot with 500 flying hours and 5 years of experience should know what he or she is doing. How many people will be in the balloon? These days it is unusual to have less than 4 people in a passenger ride balloon. Unless the client has paid a considerable sum of money it does just not make economic sense for the balloon operator. Probably a good average would be eight passengers. You will not all be in together. There would probably be five compartments. One in the middle for pilot and gas. Two either side each containing two passengers. This means in the event of a fast landing you don't all fall on top of each other. Important to note here that there are no overhead lockers so try and keep luggage to a minimum. A stills and video camera is really all you need. Remember the heavier the basket the shorter time the fuel lasts. Why so early or late?? Most balloon flights take place first thing in the morning, at or just before sunrise. This is for the important reason that the air is at its best behaved at that time of day. It has had a chance to cool down over night and in simple terms get heavy or sticky. Trees, buildings, stuff all help slow down the bottom sticky air and the wind drops. Hot air balloons do not cope with high speed winds very well. It's all about the stopping. At the end of a flight the pilot will pull a line and open a vent in the top of the balloon, this lets air out. But only as fast as it can go through that vent. If its windy the balloon itself or envelope as it should be more correctly called acts like a sail and drags the basket through whatever might be in the way. There are no brakes. A drag landing is a good time to see why it's a fine idea to make balloon baskets out of wicker. It flexes and gives; a stiffer material would bend or break. I can't count the number of times I have been asked," but why is the basket still wicker". If the passenger ends up having a drag landing they soon realise. That sticky layer of air is known as the boundary layer, air moving above 2000' is what the pilot is told about by the weather office when he makes his weather check before you fly. This is known as the gradient wind. It will be faster. They will also tell you the surface wind but the gradient is more accurate. Using the gradient forecast the pilot will have made mentally his best guess as to where you will end up from your take off site. The pilot will probably release a small helium balloon before your flight and watch it intently. The harder and longer the pilot looks at the thing the trickier the flight will probably be for him or her! If he releases stacks of met balloons then there is a good chance you will be going home. High speed winds also mean you need longer fields in which to stop. Your pilot will thinking well if we go that way what are the fields like. Maybe there is a large area of forest or water in that direction. It might be possible to fly at higher speeds in certain directions and not in others. If a balloon pilot cancels a flight because of high speed winds it's not because he got out of bed on the wrong side or that they don't like the look of you. He or she will have called the flight on because of an earlier forecast and when you get to the flying field you have the play the hand you are actually dealt by Mother Nature. Balloon pilots usually work on a no flight no fee system so if they cancel not only will they have disappointed you but they won't be getting paid either. It is always better to go home and try another day. It might be a great shame because today was your birthday or anniversary but it's much better to be able to see the next one. Telling 16 people to go home is a real character forming exercise for the pilot. Often people will protest and try and get you into the air. My friends and I have a habit of moving those passengers down the wait list! Back to that sticky air, as it slows down it starts to be influenced! The air over a river is colder still and moves with that river. A wood or dam is cold. You will move with or towards these cool areas and that allows you a little bit of steerage. The balloon can only fly with the wind, that's it. It's up to the pilot to climb and descend into different layers of air to steer the craft. When the sun has risen it heats the boundary layer and it rises and mixes with the gradient wind so the balloons track over the ground becomes straighter and faster. In some parts of the world it is possible to fly in the evening, think of it as the reverse situation. You start off flying a very predictable track and then as the air cools and calms you have a chance to play with direction a little. If you're in a really cold snowy place you can fly all day. Should your pilot get airborne and the wind increases in flight he or she should terminate that flight at the first big field they find. Again disappointing but safe. What Should I Wear? The heated air in the balloon is at around 100C and you are moving in your own bubble down wind so there is no wind chill. It's pretty warm in the basket. People tend to overdress and regret it. Rather go for layers that can be easily be removed. If it's a dawn flight on a summer's day it will probably be pretty warm a couple of hours after sunrise. The biggest apparel mistake that passengers make is in the foot ware department. Fields are likely to having morning dew on them or something less poetic that a cow has left behind. Welly boots or sturdy boots rule when ballooning. The colour white is not the best plan either. How High Will We Fly? Ballooning is best enjoyed at tree top height. Climbing a little to say 2000' helps the view to unfold and allows the pilot to check what is ahead. If it's really calm your pilot might go higher still because there is little else to do! I have taken off and landed in the same field before. How long will the flight last? Most balloons fly with fuel sufficient for 1 and a half hours' safe flight. Now call me old fashioned call me a fool but it's best to leave some for in case so one hour is generally the time you fly for. The only time you can have too much fuel is when you are on fire. Now if a perfect field arrives underneath the balloon at 50 minutes it makes sense to land. If you fly on because you have passengers insist that they want their hour in the air and hit power lines that's your indaba. It has happened and aviation authorities take a pretty dim view of pilots that do that sort of thing. Now if you can remember right back to the beginning when I said the lighter the basket the better the fuel lasts... Well it's very true. Maybe because you didn't bring the kitchen sink with you the pilot is getting good consumption and will take you well over the hour. Another tip here, if you show interest and seem enthralled every good pilot will try and make the flight last longer. If you are late to the flying site carry the world on board and are rude you might get a short flight. That's life. How far will we fly? It's back to the wind speed thing again. Flights in the evening normally go further than the morning. As a very general rule you fly somewhere in the order of 12km on a flight. Where will we land? >From even before the pilot takes off he or she should be thinking about the landing. Refining the position continually throughout the flight. Your landing almost certainly will not be back where you started. It can be sometimes but that's very rare. It will probably be the aforementioned farmer's field with four legged things in or nearby. If you happen to be flying with me in Kenya it will be one flipping big field with furry four legged things about. Sometimes on the edge of built up areas pilots might land on football pitches or school yards. That's perfectly normal. How will we land? Just about everybody seems to have seen footage of balloons dragging along the ground on their sides. Now this is normally in Kenya or Tanzania where balloons fly in slightly higher winds than the rest of the world. Because of this basket design has dramatically changed. Big baskets routinely carry 18 passengers. These baskets have cushion flooring, and seats. For quick landing passengers put their backs to the direction of travel sit on the seats and hold onto rope handles. The balloon sides are high enough that their heads will be below the top of the basket. It's then just a matter of waiting for the thing to stop. As the balloon slows the basket will tip so the passengers end up on their backs facing skywards normally laughing. You will have high speed landings in other parts of the world but in my 18 years of flying I have not managed to match East African speeds. Very important to keep limbs inside the basket whilst dragging, else you'll break them. Also if you have anything around your neck like a camera or binoculars tuck them into your jumper or top to stop them flying up and hitting yourself or friend in the face. Best really to put them in a case by your feet. Anybody with long hair should also be careful not to let it drag under the bottom of the basket. For the most part it will be a very gentle touchdown, the basket staying upright. Very important not to get out until the pilot says though. When your weights gone the balloon may take off again and you will be walking home. How will we get back? So once on the ground you will probably help the pilot pack the balloon whilst a vehicle that has been in two way radio contact with your pilot finds out how to get into the field. This may take some time. It's not always obvious to the crew exactly how to get to the balloon. You will then normally be taken back to the launch site. It's often amazing how long this takes and how far it is. Remember if the balloon you have flown in a fairly straight line across roads and rail. It might be a torturous windy route back. That might be why it takes the crew several minutes to find you. Blimey what started as quick notes seems to have gone on a bit. If you really do have any fears or questions you would like answered. I will try Cheers Gary