What to expect from a hot air balloon trip.
Several factors have made hot air balloons one of the fastest growing adventure travel items and hottest gift tickets of the last 20 years. With over 70,000 passengers flown in the UK alone every year.
Sir Richard Branson and his well-publicized crossing of the Atlantic and Pacific and various round-the-world endeavors. All keep hot air balloons in the public eye.
The global aviation success of Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard captured the imagination of millions.
Balloon operators in Africa have made magic carpet travel over the Serengeti and Maasi Mara ecosystems possible for thousands of people.
Maybe this is why the British people chose hot air ballooning as the number 7 thing to do before you die! A poll that has certainly led to an increase in the number of passengers flown in the UK.
Modern technology has also made passenger travel by hot air balloon much safer. Advanced burner design, provides a more powerful flame. Much better pilot light that stays on. A specially designed basket for carrying passengers.
Above all modern fabrics that are not only stronger but better able to resist the effects of Ultra Violet Light and mildew and mildew. Yes, the balloon is like your tent when it gets wet, it rots.
At this point I have to admit that I am a hot air balloon pilot.
Balloons have been good to me and have taken me to all points of the world.
Australia, Thailand, France, UK, Kenya and South Africa all balloon flights have similar requirements.
Wherever you are in the world.
I hope to answer some questions and perhaps allay some fears in this article. This is a question I get asked all the time.
Do you have a pilot’s license?
Yes, balloon pilots have taken written exams just like their regular wing buddies, but they have instead taken balloon flight tests. In some countries, notably the UK and Australia, there are also quite stringent commercial pilot licenses and annual flight tests that must be carried out. (you guessed it, I have UK and Australian license) Plus this in most countries the balloon company must also have Air Operator Certificate. This or its equivalent is issued by the local aviation authority. An inspector will check all aircraft and pilot documents and ensure that the company is using safety systems.
Run a Google check in your country and if the person you call for the flight can’t convince you that all the documents are available, don’t fly with them.
Better call the aviation authorities asking the person responsible for the balloons because there will be one.
Ask if they know the person you’ll be contacting for the flight.
You won’t believe the number of unlicensed carriers out there. As a rule of thumb, a pilot with 500 flight 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’s not uncommon to have less than 4 people in a passenger balloon. Unless the client has paid a large sum of money, it makes no economic sense to the balloon operator.
Perhaps a good average is eight passengers.
You won’t be all together. There will probably be five compartments. One in the middle for pilot and gas. The two sides each contain two passengers.
This means in the case of a quick landing you don’t all fall on top of each other.
It’s 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 the fuel lasts.
Why so early or late??
Most balloon flights take place in the morning, on or just before sunrise.
This is for the important reason that the air behaves best at that time.
It has a chance to get cold at night and in simple terms become heavy or sticky. The trees, the buildings, the stuff all helped slow the sticky air below and the wind down.
Hot air balloons don’t handle high winds well.
It’s all about quitting.
At the end of the flight the pilot will pull the string and open the vent at the top of the balloon, this allows air to escape. But only as fast as it can get through that hole. If it’s windy the balloon itself or the envelope as it should be more properly called act like a sail and drag the basket through anything that might get in the way. No brakes.
A drag landing is a good time to see why making a balloon basket out of wicker is a good idea. It flexes and gives; stiffer materials will bend or break. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked, “but why is the basket still rattan”. If passengers end up experiencing a drag landing, they notice it immediately.
That sticky layer of air is known as the boundary layer, the air moving above 2000′ is what the pilot is told by the weather office when he does a weather check before you fly. This is known as a gradient wind. It will be faster.
They will also tell you the surface wind but the gradient is more accurate. Using gradient approximation, the pilot will make his mental best guess as to where you’ll end up from from your takeoff location.
The pilot may release a small helium balloon before your flight and watch it closely. The harder and longer the pilot looks at something, the more difficult the flight will be for him! If he releases the pile of balloons to meet then there is a high chance you will go home.
High-speed winds also mean you need longer terrain to stop. Your pilot will think well if we go there what the terrain is like. There may be a large area of forest or water in that direction. It is possible to fly at higher speeds in certain directions and not in others.
If a balloon pilot cancels a flight because of high winds, it’s not because he got out of bed on the wrong side or because they don’t like how you look.
He will call the flight because of the previous prophecy and when you get to the airfield, you have a game, you are completely handled by Mother Earth.
Balloon pilots usually work with a no flight no fee system, so if they cancel, they will not only disappoint you, but also not get paid.
It’s always better to go home and try another day. It might be a shame because today is your birthday or anniversary, but it’s so much better to be able to see what’s next.
Telling 16 people to go home was a real character-building exercise for the pilot. Often people will protest and try to get you into the air. My friends and I have a habit of moving that passenger to the waiting list!
Back in that sticky air, as it slowed down, it started to get affected! The air over the river is cooler and moves with the river. The wood or the dam is cold. You will be moving with or towards this cool area and that allows you a bit of control.
Balloons can only fly with the wind, that’s all. It is up to the pilot to get on and off into different layers of air to steer the plane.
As the sun rises, it heats the boundary layer and rises and mixes with the gradient wind so that the balloon’s trajectory above the ground becomes straighter and faster.
In some parts of the world it is possible to fly at night, think of it as the opposite situation. You start flying very predictable tracks and then as the air cools and calms you have the opportunity to play with direction a bit.
If you are in a very cold snowy place, you can fly all day long.
If your pilot is in the air and the wind increases in flight, he or she must stop the flight at the first large field they find. Again disappointing but safe.
What should I wear?
The hot air inside the balloon is at about 100C and you are moving in your own bubble downwind so there is no cold wind. It’s quite warm in the basket. People tend to overdress and regret it. Better to choose a layer that can be easily removed.
If the flight is dawn on a hot summer’s day it will probably be quite warm a few hours after sunrise.
The biggest clothing mistake that passengers make is in the leg fittings.
Fields tend to have morning dew or something less poetic left by a cow. Welly boots or sturdy boots apply when ballooning.
White is also not the best plan.
How High Will We Fly?
Balloons are best enjoyed at treetop heights. Climbing up a bit to say 2000′ helps open sights and allows the pilot to check what’s ahead.
If you’re really calm, your pilot will probably go even higher because there’s not much to do! I have taken off and landed on the same plane before.
How long will the flight last?
Most balloons fly with enough fuel for a safe flight of 1 and a half hours. Now call me ancient, call me stupid, but it’s best to leave a few to watch out for, so an hour is usually the time you fly.
The only time you can have too much fuel is when you are burning.
Now if the perfect field arrives under the balloon in 50 minutes, it makes sense to land.
If you fly because you have passengers who insist they want their clock in the air and hit the power lines, that’s your dream.
It has happened and aviation authorities take a pretty dim view of pilots doing such a thing.
Now if you remember going back to the beginning when I said the lighter the basket the better the fuel lasts… Well that’s very true. Maybe because you didn’t bring a kitchen sink, the pilot gets good consumption and will take you over an hour.
Another tip here, if you show interest and seem fascinated, any good pilot will try and make the flight last longer. If you’re late for a fly-in-the-world location and are rude, you may get a short flight. That is life.
How far will we fly?
It’s back to the wind speed thing again. Flights at night are usually longer than in the morning.
As a very general rule, you fly somewhere within 12km of a flight.
Where are we going to land?
Even before the pilot takes off, he has to think about landing. Fixed position continuously throughout the flight.
Your landing will almost certainly not return to where you started. Sometimes it can but it’s very rare.
This will probably be the farmer’s farm mentioned above with four legged objects in or near it.
If you happen to fly with me in Kenya, it will be a large inverted field with four -legged furry things.
Sometimes at the edge of the built area, the pilot may land on a football field or school grounds. That’s very normal.
How are we going to land?
Almost everyone seemed to have seen footage of the balloon being dragged across the ground by their side. Now this is usually in Kenya or Tanzania where balloons fly in slightly higher winds than the rest of the world. Because the design of this basket has changed dramatically. The large basket routinely carries 18 passengers. This basket has a cushion floor, and a chair.
For a quick landing, the passenger leans their back in the direction of the ride, sits on the seat and clings to the rope handles. The sides of the balloons are high enough that their heads will be under the top of the basket.
It’s then just a matter of waiting for it to stop. As the balloon slows down, the basket flips over so that the passenger is on their back facing the sky, usually 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 speed.
It is very important to keep the limbs in the basket while dragging, otherwise you will break them. Also if you have something around your neck like a camera or binoculars, put it in your jumper or top to stop it flying and hitting you or your friends in the face. Best really to put them in the case with your feet. Anyone with long hair should also be careful not to drag it under the basket.
For the most part it will be a very soft touchdown, the basket remains upright.
It’s very important not to get out until the pilot says so. When your weight is gone, the balloon can take off again and you’ll be walking home.
How are we going back?
So once on the ground you might be helping the pilot pack the balloon while the vehicle that has made two-way radio contact with your pilot figure out how to get into the field.
This may take some time. It’s not always clear to the crew how to get to the balloon.
You will usually be taken back to the launch site. It’s often surprising how long it takes and how far away it is. Remember if your balloon has flown in a fairly straight line across roads and rails.
Maybe the torturous windy route returns.
Maybe that’s why it took the crew a few minutes to find you.
Gary Mortimer has been a balloon racer for 18 years. Balloons have taken him all over the world and allowed him to see many amazing things from the air. Nothing compares to the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti.
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