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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org