Monthly Archives: August 2015

Floating Away: My First Hot Air Balloon Ride

I’m so in love. Hot air ballooning: the calmest flight experience I’ve ever had.

I love this shot

Today was another occasion where Groupon [and another similar discount pricing website] comes in handy for broadening my flight experience. I found a deal for a hot air balloon flight for any day, Monday-Friday. Thanks to Groupon, this balloon flight was the same price as renting one hour of solo C152 time in Fairbanks. You schedule a time online – either morning or evening – and check their webpage the night before to get a yes or no (pilot posts if the weather will be good enough to go). I originally had a flight scheduled for this past Friday, but wind forecasts were too strong for that morning. It was forecasted for 7kts but my pilot said he wanted less than 5kts. The flight was cancelled, but annoyingly, the winds were perfectly calm that morning. Darn. The pilot tells me that 60% of morning (6am) flights end up going, but only about 20% of evening (6pm) flights usually happen – helpful hint in case you are planning your own trip.

Today’s (Monday) flight schedule was completely open because thunderstorms were forecasted. I didn’t believe bad weather was on the way because the weekend was supposed to be sunny&calm and the rest of the week is supposed to be sunny&calm – Monday was supposedly an anomalous day – but there were no clouds forecasted to roll in over time or anything (just how were these rain clouds going to get here?). I placed my bets that it would be a gorgeous, non-windy morning and scheduled a flight.

I won my bet.

Flight is on!

I met the pilot and the chase car driver in a parking lot at 6am. This Virginia parking lot was a 2 hour drive from my rental house near NASA Goddard….I started driving at 3:30am, mmm, yawn.

4 passengers were on the schedule, including myself, but the other people forgot they had their flight this morning. WHO FORGETS THEY HAVE A HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE? I have been jazzed for the flight since I bought the ticket over a month ago. Heck, I’m still excited even though it’s over. It worked out for me however; I ended up having a fantastic private ride as the only passenger.

The pilot started the morning by releasing a test balloon (a normal black party balloon filled with helium) and watching it rise through the air.

Test balloon #1; balloon released up into the Virginia morning (it’s the small black speck in the sky)

To my untrained eye, it looked like it rose up fairly vertical, minor drift. Pilot said yes to going, so we all piled into the chase van.

On the way to the launch site, the pilot called flight services to get the weather. I felt like a dummy at how surprised I was that balloons have N-numbers. It proceeded like weather briefings I’m used to, with the exception of the pilot requesting the additional, more unusually specific information for winds from ground to 3000′ in several local areas.

We pulled into a local open spot and released another test balloon. The pilot explained that he was looking specifically at what the winds were doing about 200′ off the ground. We didn’t want much wind at all at that height. Didn’t want fast winds at launch. Balloon cruise altitudes can be somewhat quick (say ~20kts on a fast day). As one descends, coming down into a layer of slow air will slow the balloon down for landing (I supposed this was important at launch too in case we needed to abort for some reason). Other hints for winds include what tree tops were doing (completely still this morning).

a blurry (sorry) picture of our launch site
Pilot and chase car driver watching test balloon #2

Winds at 200′ were about 7kts so waited a few minutes and launched test balloon #3. It was about the same, smidge slower, and the pilot decided to go ahead with a launch. He and the chase car driver pulled the balloon and basket out of their trailer. They set up 2 large fans to fill the balloon about 3/4 full with cold air.

The black bag holds all the balloon fabric. You can see the basket in the trailer
Balloon unrolled
 One of two fans used to fill the balloon. Wooden blades!
One of two fans used to fill the balloon. Wooden blades!

The balloon basket is laid on its side for it’s initial filling (cold air). Yes, it does have an airworthiness certificate! (oh, the facts I find myself amused by….)

Balloon basket ready for filling. The white strap going around the frame is a handhold. At the basket corners, you can see two of the four propane canisters used to generate our hot air. Burner is the metal contraption above the basket frame. Yellow loops are hand holds. Redish pouch is for stowing gear (say during landing). Above the storage pouch is a mini-control panel.

Upon seeing the basket size, I was glad I was flying alone. Imagine fitting four people and a pilot in there.

If I recall correctly, the balloon fabric is about 200 lbs and the basket is about 500 lbs (fully loaded with the propane and everything) [I hope those numbers are right…don’t quote me on them]. The fabric is polyester which lasts longer than nylon; I think it is lighter too. It doesn’t need to be washed and maintenance involves: letting it dry if it gets wet and doing a resealing process perhaps twice in its lifetime. Today’s balloon is at least 9 years old; well, that was the last time the pilot put it through a resealing process.

I helped the pilot hold the balloon’s bottom open so fan air could go in to it. As the balloon filled, the pilot walked straight into the polyester bubble and made adjustments to…stuff on the inside. I couldn’t really see. I really wish I had a photo of that. After a bit, the pilot lit the three burners. If you look closely in this photo, you can see the blue flame of one of them:

Lighting the pilot lights

Here are the best pictures I have of filling the balloon on the ground. I was standing at the frame of the basket, holding some of the lines. That burner gets quite hot.

Filling the balloon with hot air
Filling the balloon as it lays on the ground
Balloon wanting to ‘just get up in the air already’ as the pilot fiddles with an altimeter/VSI (vertical speed indicator). Meanwhile, I’m getting a little bit of the feeling Dorothy had in the Wizard of Oz: that “wait! don’t leave without me!” thing.
Balloon looking good. I just missed the N number in this shot, it’s printed in small black font on one of the white fabric panels.

I climbed up into the basket (no doors) and we were off. There is a picture of the step viewed from the inside of the basket a little further down in this post.

The whole experience was so smooth – I was very surprised. Smoother and quieter than being in a glider. There were no noticeable G’s being pulled – neither positive nor negative G’s – which was unsettling [at first] because we were certainly moving both up and laterally. So strange.

Altimeter and vertical speed indicator
Altimeter (bottom) and vertical speed indicator (top), moments after balloon launch
Launch site. You can see the trailer and van at photo bottom.

I was so busy enjoying the Shenandoah Valley that I didn’t get photos of the blue ridge mountains nor any of the other peaks pointed out to me, but I did eventually get around to photo taking:

This was the view as we got in the air
Gotta love sunrises
The hole is the step one can use to get into the basket from the outside. The pilot usually just took to hopping in and out like some gymnast
Christmas tree farm
More hot air!

This hot air was surprisingly hot. I started out needing a light jacket but definitely did not need it from the middle of the flight onwards.


The big white building is where we launched from.
Control panel. We have an app pulled up showing heading, speed, etc.

The pilot also flies larger (12 person?) balloons for large groups – like on weekends when most people don’t have to work. If I remember correctly, that one has 3 burners and one control area in the center. I would love to fly in that someday. It’s supposed to be super stable, even as people are walking around during flight. This 5 person balloon I flew in already felt incredibly stable as the pilot and I moved around the basket – interesting to think of something being even more ‘still’. Do you know the feeling of walking to the lavatory in a commercial jet? Even in the smoothest of air, there are ever so slight bumps? The constant vibration of the engines? Hot air ballooning is nothing like that. I didn’t need to be looking at the pilot to know when he took a step or two in the basket, but the bumps were barely noticeable.

We did not get turbulence today, but I was told that if we did, it wouldn’t feel bumpy like in a plane, it would just feel like we were speeding up and slowing down.


When the burners weren’t going, it was basically stone quiet (except the slight hiss of the three pilot lights telling us they were still lit).

I love heights. The cute flame logo all over the basket was fun.


After a bit of searching, I found our shadow. Got some neat selfies with the balloon shadow behind me.
I noticed our shadow sure freaked out the beef cattle all over the valley. They ran for tree cover as the shadow glided close to them.


Coming in to land in the subdivision over yonder in this picture

All too soon, it was time to land. The pilot had landing sites picked out all over the place. We were in frequent contact with the chase car driver who provided surface level wind information via test balloons and hand held radio. Pilot readied a line to throw down to him in case we needed it (we didn’t). Landing for a balloon passenger means stowing away breakables in a storage bag, holding on to the yellow loops shown in the first basket picture above, no hands outside the basket (on the rim), being prepared for the basket to tip over, stay standing (not crouching), and bending your knees.

Slight bump as we landed upright on this lovely lawn. This neighborhood has residents who have agreed to let Don land his balloons here. People still came out of the houses to watch the pack up process – not that I blame them – what a strange morning sight…
After landing, I saw 2 short utility poles in front of us. This picture the was the view from the ‘back’ – another pole I didn’t see at all! Impressed the pilot avoided obstacles from all sides (although we did clip three leaves off a tree – which helped to slow us down a bit).
Immediately after landing, the balloon still seemed to have plenty of lift. The pilot and I are still in the balloon (see our shadows?) and the chase car driver is walking us over to a larger lawn to deflate the balloon.
A fantastic trip! Followed by a sparking cider toast; mmm grape bubbly.

This was a roughly 10 mile float that was about 50 minutes long.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 5.16.45 PM
Our route went pretty much straight north east
Speed graph of the balloon flight (I started recording a few minutes after launch)
Balloon trip altitude (I started graphing a few minutes after launch, ignore the bump at the end)

You’ll notice our flight path went up and down throughout the trip. This was controlled by the pilot to take advantage of wind speeds and directions at different altitudes.

This trip only used about 15 gallons of propane I think. We were carrying 40-something pounds because the original flight was for four passengers and one pilot. Since we were so light, we used less fuel (only had to switch tanks once). The balloon was also quieter and less hot than if there were more passengers (burners didn’t need to be used as much as for a heavier basket).

My pilot mentioned that when he was learning hot air ballooning, he only flew Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays – it took him a year to get his license (plus a little more to get to fly balloons commercially). He assures me the transition from fixed wing isn’t bad. Hmmm…..

The entire experience was so amazing. I definitely want a hot air balloon someday. At this moment, I want one more than a fixed wing plane.

If I got to do this every morning, I would definitely become a morning person.