Hot Air Balloons

The Hot Air Balloon I went up in was a rainbow of colors, one of three owned and operated by a local ballooning company. For $125.00, a ride of at least forty minutes duration is promised and we were aloft for just under an hour. It’s certainly serene when floating along through the air, but it is deafening when the pilot turns on the burners! A sharpening breeze blew our balloon further adrift that expected and we landed in a pasture amidst an interested herd of Hereford steers. The chase vehicle soon arrived, the pilot popped open a celebratory bottle of champagne (as promised in their literature), and I inquired about booking another flight!

Hot Air Ballooning is very popular nowadays, with clubs and ballooning companies offering rides and even instruction for wannabe pilots. However, the pastime is not new on the scene, in fact the very first hot air balloon rose from the ground in 1783. In France, the Montgolfier brothers were the early developers, sending up tethered balloons with no passengers, then experimenting with first geese and then a dog, and finally mustering the courage for two men to try it. The next step was an untethered balloon, which stayed up for 23 minutes flying over Paris, landing in a park in the Bois du Boulogne. They had little control over their balloon, a condition that exists to a great extent to the present day; basically the pilot still goes where the breeze blows him.

If you actually need to get somewhere, a hot air balloon is a fairly impractical vehicle. You can’t really steer it other than rising or descending to find crosscurrents in the wind, and it only travels as fast as the wind blows. Hot air balloons are based on a very basic scientific principle: warmer air rises in cooler air because the hot air is lighter. A cubic foot of air weighs roughly 28 grams (about an ounce). If you heat that air by 100 degrees F, it weighs about 7 grams less. Therefore, each cubic foot of air contained in a hot air balloon can lift about 7 grams. That’s not much, and this is why hot air balloons are so huge — to lift 1, 000 pounds, you need about 65, 000 cubic feet of hot air!

Inside the balloon’s envelope there is a constant variation between the pressure of the hot air against the top of the envelope versus the pull of gravity. The pilot’s objective is to maintain equilibrium between the two forces through the judicious use of the propane-fueled burners, which are mounted on the gondola, which in turn is suspended under the open balloon. It takes a lot of practice to get the feel for achieving that near exact balancing act between ascent and descent.

The growing popularity of ballooning is reflected by the number of meets, the largest (certainly the oldest) of these probably being in Albuquerque, NM, where the meet has been in operation for thirty-four years. In 2005 there were over 600 balloons participating, most from the western United States, but also a few hardy souls who shipped their balloons in from Australia, the UK and elsewhere around the world. Officially termed the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, this year (2006) it will be running from October 6 -15, with over 700 balloons expected.

Another interesting aspect of hot air ballooning is the advertising facet. Clever designers and fabricators have come up with balloons that look like most anything that one can imagine. Last year at a local meet, I saw such oddities as Barney the Dinosaur, the Planters Peanuts man, a Shell Gas Pump, a soft ice cream cone and Senator Foghorn the Leghorn from cartoons, just to name a few. Some of the larger ones, like Barney, seemed quite unwieldy both to inflate and to fly. Balloonists sell advertising or enlist sponsors to underwrite their ballooning activities and it seems to work out fairly well for all concerned.

Most balloonists I’ve talked to have a well-developed sense of humor, a necessary asset when dealing with the vagaries of the prevailing winds. Our pilot told us this story; mostly I think to divert our attention while passing over an open stretch of water.

A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts: “Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?” The man below says: “yes you’re in a hot air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field.” “You must work in Information Technology” says the balloonist. “I do” replies the man. “How did you know?” “Well” says the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but it’s no use to anyone.” The man below says, “You must work in Management”. “I do” replies the balloonist, “but how did you know?” “Well”, says the man, “you don’t know where you are, or where you’re going, but you expect me to be able to help. You’re in the same position you were before we met, but now it’s my fault.”

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