Tag Archives: Weather

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.

Crosswind Landings

Some ridiculous winds we’re having in Fairbanks this year!

Ick, look at how the wind is bending that tree at the entrance to the general aviation area of PAFA
Ick, look at how the wind is bending that tree at the entrance to the general aviation area of PAFA. Fairbanks is usually never windy – except this year.

The plan was to try and to finish my solo cross country flight hours today but at 6am, the clouds were too low, mountain obscuration AIRMET, yada (including an Alaskan volcano SIGMET – although it wouldn’t have been a factor for me). Yucky weather forecasted all day.

I had the plane booked anyways so it was supposedly a good time to practice solo landings. Light winds straight down the runway before 7am, cool.

As soon as I got to the airport at 8 though, the winds started to pick up and the crosswind kept increasing, peaking around 7knots I think. Darn. Do preflight anyways.

I went inside to get someone to help me loosen the dipstick for me to finish preflighting and CFI2 asked me what my aeronautical decision making steps were telling me.

I really didn’t want to deal with the winds alone and I did say so (not that CFI2 or CFI4 going to let me do so regardless). The Fairbanks DPE happened to be sitting in the office listening to my logic and that made it really easy to just decide not to go up alone. Honestly though, if he wasn’t sitting there, I don’t know if I would have been as fast in deciding not to go alone. That worries me a bit (although I don’t know whether or not it should because I know I wouldn’t have chosen to go alone. Does the speed of my decision matter?)

CFI2 and I did some touch-and-goes and I have the following reminders and notes for myself:

  • I raise the nose too high on takeoff- keep nose wheel only a few inches off runway til I build enough speed.
  • Even after the mains are airborne, I need to pitch down more (adjust my personal sight picture).
  • On downwind, reduce power setting so airspeed doesn’t really exceed 85 (in the 152)-oh, that’s why these rpms are so much lower than cruise, i finally get it.
  • As soon as one is on final, can go ahead and use rudder to keep straight, don’t need to wait if you’re on glidepath
  • The PAPIs were being fixed in between my landings so I had to wait for tower to call my base and the maintenance guy to clear the runway. Extending downwind wasn’t a problem (traffic pattern @PAFA- hold at 1200′ until base turn), but I usually got low on final and wasn’t proactive enough in getting back on glidepath. (Side note: amazing how they get anything done since they can only work ~3 minutes at a time)
  • Don’t forget about the final notch of flaps.
  • Pitch needs to be constant, control airspeed with power, stop getting so slow. Or fast.
  • 20′ off runway: don’t stop flying the plane til you’re at taxi speed. The variable speed crosswinds are getting annoying.
  • With a crosswind, want to carry in a bit of power til you’re on the runway.
  • Power completely off immediately 7after touching down, especially with a crosswind. Stop landing in such a flat configuration.
  • Do the correct crosswind taxi aileron and elevator positioning.

I was so nervous about this flight: 1 there was a light rain, 2. This flight was after I’d been allowed to do the solo cross country so I wanted very much to show I knew what I was doing, 3. It was CFI2.

I can and should be doing better, and it is sad I am not.

Crosswind?, Short Field, Soft Field

Fairbanks weather has been gorgeous, 70F and sunny…until today. Today, it snowed. During my flight, light rainy mist.

Fair bit of crosswind at PAFA too – rare for us. Theoretically perfect to practice crosswind takeoffs and landings.

Because Alaska has mostly thawed, all local unpaved airstrips are ‘soft’ – hence it’s a good time to work on soft field takeoff/landings. (I’m recalling a certain incident a few weeks ago where a certain someone landed on mud at local Metro field. I believe he said it was like landing on velcro…and someone had to go pick him up in a car. Runway was closed and plane had to be left there until the mud dried)

CFI1 also decided to have me practice short field procedures.

Almost every time I turned to final, the crosswind over the runway would disappear…yet crosswind was noticeable on all other legs. Hm. Guess I’ll get my crosswind practice in another day.

My short field takeoffs/landings tend to be too fast of speed – I need to work on maintaining that 54kts for the 152. My landings weren’t terrible but CFI1 stressed that they would improve faster if I would learn to make my landing steps more consistent.

Giant birds all over the airport today! Scary! Especially that pair of large white seagull-looking birds that flew across my path during takeoff. I hope the flocks migrate over to Creamers Field soon.

We were working on runway 2R today and CFI1 felt my work was good enough to land on an actual ‘soft’ runway, ski2. It was strange to turn base in the middle of 2R. I’d be too scared to land by myself on an actual (gravel) soft field for many, many more piloting hours (for fear or damaging the propeller), but it was a good exercise.



Aviation Weather Class 2

My flight school is owned by a CFI who is a weather guru with many years as a military aviation meteorologist. He requires all students in the flight school to take his aviation weather class. Tonight was class #2 of 2.

Tonight we covered thunderstorms, air masses and fronts, and Alaskan weather products (mostly Alaskan Aviation Weather Unit’s website).

This class was much more fun than yesterday. CFI2 provided anecdotes from his days as a weather forcaster – I would have really enjoyed a session of just anecdotes. The best one: while writing a forecast after staying up all night, he wrote something like: ‘it’s clear, may become few, scattered, broken, or overcast; chance of rain, fog, or snow, […].’ – I forget the exact words but it was cleverly written so no matter what the weather did,Β he wouldn’t be required by regulations to issue any amendments during his work day. Cue major yelling from the base commander in the middle of nap time. Sigh, I’m not surprised CFI2 would do that πŸ˜‰ such a character.

My most important class take-aways (stuff I didn’t already know):

  • Weather prediction centers:Β they issue 2 forecasts – one for the general public (tv news, radio, internet, etc), one for pilots. Each is handled by a separate person. Because the general public forecast is seen by so many people, there is more pressure not to screw up; a very experienced forecaster does this one. A rookie forecaster handles aviation weather. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when aviation weather reports are inaccurate.
Tisk tisk. Weather Forecasters. [http://toonclips.com/design/947]
  • When CFI2 was weather forecasting in the midwest USA, he once saw a severe thunderstorm extend above the normal tropopause (!). He went to issue a weather warning, but was told by a supervisor not to because only ~10 people lived in the area to be hit. When weather warnings are issued, there must be a follow-up where any damage must be accounted for. Because the area was so sparsely populated, no damage would be expected. After the storm passed, this was verified – no damage reported. This makes me wonder about weather reporting in Alaska. Over 30,000 people live in Fairbanks, sure, but when I fly somewhere like Manley (pop. 100), do I need to worry about warnings not being put out? I’m supposing forecasters here err on the side of caution (many warnings) because aviation is the only ‘road’ to so many communities.
  • The importance of the area forecast discussion – I always ignored this but it is important to know how much the forecast models may have diverged before the final products were issued.
  • Alaska weather changes ridiculously rapidly: ex1. Outrageous rain on a 40 minute flight (ie Fairbanks to Fort Yukon), refuel, completely clear skies on the leg back. ex2. Summer Fairbanks thunderstorms (what few we get) can take about 10 minutes to move out of the way. Intentional minor delays can pay off huge in safety.
  • Rule of thumb: horizontal visibility of 1/2 miles generally means vertical visibility of 500 ft.
  • Why W0X0F is significant to CFI2 Β – and why it’s prominently displayed on his car, hahaaaa, funny.Β W0X0F Β is weather code for ‘indefinite ceiling, zero visibility, zero due to fog’.
  • Weather phenomena code FFG – stands for freezing fog. No need to freak out as a pilot, it doesn’t mean the fog is sticking to your plane as ice – it just means the [ground] air temperature is below 0Β°C (ice particle fog).
  • You can call and talk to forecasters to have them clarify their predictions (example from a canceled flight of mine: ‘you didn’t predict fog until 9pm, I’m seeing fog at 3pm; why is this and is it going to lift any time soon?’).
    • Commercial pilots have been known to call the weather predictors to get them to revise their forecasts to better meet current conditions and weather trends (to allow for commercial flights when the original forecasts unnecessarily grounded them per FARs – remember aviation forecasters are usually more inexperienced). [I think this statement I read somewhere sums it up nicely: ‘Lucklily(?), the FAA doesn’t care if you kill yourself {in bad weather}, but they really freak out if you kill someone else’]
  • Radar products are only really accurate up to a 80nm radius (and data holes can exist when heavy precipitation is close to the radar)
  • Radar coverage in Alaska is soooooo bad!!!!!! Oh the radars work fine, but for a state which is larger than Texas, Montana, and California combined, there are only 7 radars, only 1 in the interior of the state (see maps below).
Alaska is huge!
Compare the number of weather radars in the lower 48 with that of Alaska. Shocking! Fairbanks is the AK ‘+’ site in the middle of the state. Data doesn’t exists for the darker browns&blues. Almost everywhere I fly in Alaska is dark brown. Reminds me to take AK weather products with a grain of salt. [http://www.wunderground.com/radar/map.asp]


Overall, I think the time and money for the class was worth it; most of it (~90%?) I already learned from the Jeppesen online course (basic theory) and poking around the flight school’s weather briefing links/AAWU, but repetition is the best way to get the knowledge ingrained in one’s head, so it is okay. Even CFI2, with his decades of practical weather experience, still learns new weather knowledge all the time (even with all the science available, forecasting is still more of an art). Plus, the break time ginger cookies were made with real, fresh ginger: awesome! πŸ˜€

Aviation Weather Class 1

My flight school is owned by a CFI who is a weather guru with many years as a military aviation meteorologist. He requires all students in the flight school to take his aviation weather class. Tonight was class #1 of 2.

Tonight we covered weather formation theory: what happens to heated air, conditions for stability, adiabatic heating and cooling, temperature lapse rates, effects of the solar insolation,Β  layers of the atmosphere, moisture changes of state, cloud formation & types, atmospheric circulation, details of how highs and lows affect weather movement, Coriolis effects, and all kinds of fog.

My favorite part was radiosondes/dropsondes and the data interpretation slides. Brings me back to the days of my bachelor’s degree capstone project. I built a UV based ozone detector designed to fly on a weather balloon. We released 3 balloons that year, refined the process/equipment along the way (see page 5 oβ€Žf http://daytonabeach.erau.edu/coas/physical-sciences/news-events/newsletters/EP_Newsletter_Spring_2009.pdfβ€Ž. Yes, we put a satellite on top of our Christmas tree). Anyways, radiosonde data: it’s really cool how much you can tell about the atmosphere from humidity vs temperature/altitude plots.

Temperature inversion slides were made much more interesting by the fact Fairbanks is currently sitting in such a layer. It was slightly lower than -30F all day but if you go up the in-town ski slope, temperatures were reported at +40F. The inversion layer’s height has been visible all day via smoke/condensate:

Fairbanks Temperature Inversion is visible. Power plant output rises only slightly before leveling off and returning to the ground. [http://seagrant.uaf.edu/news/01ASJ/12.14.01bad-air.html]
An example picture: Temperature inversion interface can be visible! Fairbanks power plant output rises only slightly before leveling off. [http://seagrant.uaf.edu/news/01ASJ/12.14.01bad-air.html]

The flat layer tops were still visible from the airport tonight. A lot of Fairbanks residents still use wood stoves in town which makes for fantastic visuals, hundreds (thousands?) of smoke trails as you look out over town.

Something really cool from my geophysical fluid dynamics class today: you can calculate the vertical temperature gradient (departure from the adiabatic gradient) if you know the wind speed and wavelengths of the perturbation of the temperature interface.

class notes

[Courtesy B. Wu]
Waves at today’s Fairbanks temperature inversion boundary [Courtesy B. Wu]
I may update this post with actual calculated numbers (on Friday after I verify I did the math correctly).


Random cool thing I found: Interplanetary Cessna 172!

What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different Solar System bodies?

Here’s what happens when an aircraft is launched above the surface of the 32 largest Solar System bodies:

Here’s what happens when an aircraft is launched above the surface of the 32 largest Solar System bodies.
Here’s what happens when an aircraft is launched above the surface of the 32 largest Solar System bodies. [http://what-if.xkcd.com/30/]

While I’ve not had time to personally validate all their claims, the statements look legit. More detailed explanations available on their page, http://what-if.xkcd.com/30/


If you’ve wondered why there haven’t been any posts in forever – it is because I haven’t been able to fly since Nov. 4. Lots of little reasons why (mostly weather related). It’s all documented with some great aurora photos; will be posted when I next get to fly.

Snow Day -> turns to nice VFR conditions

Fairbanks got snow last night!


This would normally be amazing news (because I love cross country skiing and this weather shift is a step in the right direction), but I had a flight today…

My amazing streak of weather luck continues though: here is the airport just after we parked the plane. Sun! You can see that it is raining over the University of Alaska Fairbanks; right over the building where the above picture was taken this morning.


Did my first pilot weather briefing today. And radio! Still weirds me out that such much of aviation is recorded and filed somewhere. Maybe because one’s voice seems so personal.

Fairbanks flight services weather brief: VFR flight not recommended – briefer’s computer predicted snow during my flight block? I love when things go my way though πŸ™‚

Radio: I noticed that I’d lose my train of thought in the middle of speaking. And that I keep letting go of the transmit button before finishing. This kept leading to others talking over me. Darn. I think I sound ridiculous in liveatc.com’s archives. I know it all boils down to nervousness, and I’m confident it’ll feel more natural soon.

Flew the 150 for the first time today. I like the 152 much more because it is newer, but the 150 is $5/hr cheaper. I see where the 152 saves money when I start longer distance flights, but for now, the 150 seems like the smarter option.

We worked on constant airspeed climbs and descents first. I did okay work, although I’d drift over time so I’d end up +/- 5to15 knots when I reached the desire altitude. arr.

Constant rate climbs and descents – I didn’t understand we had started this. I continued constant speed maneuvers – oops. This was the time when the weather cleared up a lot, so the instructor was busy helping us avoid traffic instead of really getting on my case. All these Fairbanks pilots seemed to come out of nowhere!

We landed on the gravel ski strip to avoid the wake of the jet that just took off. Fun for me because I’d never landed on gravel. πŸ™‚

Choosing a primary flight instructor: still not sure which person to go with. It feels like the school has already decided for me, but I’d rather go with the other person. However, this is just my 3rd flight, do I really have enough flight experience to judge for myself? I definitely learn with both….Oh, this choice is really hard!