Q. What is a balloon made of?
A. A balloon system consistes of three major parts:
the fabric, or "envelope"
the basket, or "gondola"
the burners and associated plumbing.
The envelope is constructed out of lightweight ripstop nylon, coated with polyurethane to reduce the porosity. It typically contains over 1000 yards of fabric, and over 3 miles of thread. The basket is made of wicker, or rattan, which is ideal for being strong, flexible, and aesthetically pleasing to look at. The burner system consists of two independent burners, two 20 gallon liquid propane tanks, and heats at a rate of over 10 million BTU's per hour!
Q. How exactly does a balloon work?
A. Heat, generated by the burner system, rises inside the envelope, expands, decreases the air density inside the balloon, which then causes it to rise. Allowing the air to cool causes the balloon to level off, and subsequently descend. To assist in "maneuvering" the balloon, we carry an altimeter, a rate of climb indicator, and a pyrometer (a temperature probe at the very top of the balloon).
Q. How big is the balloon?
A. The balloon I fly is an Aerostar RXS-8, containing 105,000 cu ft of air when fully inflated, and capable of carrying 4-5 adults in addition to the pilot. The balloon is 68 ft high, and nearly 60 ft in diameter.
Q. How far will we go?
A. As far as the wind takes us! Based on 35+ years of flying balloons, I can confidently predict that we will go somewhere between 3 miles and 15 miles, depending upon the wind conditions and the available landing sites up ahead.
Q. I've heard of something called a Splash 'n Dash. What's that?
A. A "Splash 'n Dash" is a controlled descent down to the water, resulting in the bottom of the basket just "kissing" the water surface before adding heat and rising back into the air again. Some of the most spectacular pictures taken of balloons over the years are taken during these water "touch and goes"!
Q. What should I bring?
A. Just yourself, and your camera. You won't need anything else. And don't forget to dress appropriately!
Q. What about "tethered" flights?
A. Tethering, or flying a balloon up and down 50-100 feet while anchored to the ground with anchor lines (ropes), allows many more people to experience some of the excitement of ballooning with only a single balloon. Typically, 40-60 people/hour can be accommodated, and it makes for a unique birthday party or other special event!
Q. How are balloons inflated?
A. The envelope, or fabric, is stretched out on the ground, the neck of the envelope is held open, and ambient air is blown into the envelope by an "inflator fan". Once the envelope is fully inflated, heat from the burners heats the air inside the balloon until the balloon rises up and stands erect. The total process takes about 20 minutes with an experienced crew.
Q. How high can we go?
A. While balloons have set altitude records in excess of 60,000 feet, legally we can only go up to a maximum of 10,000 feet without carrying oxygen. On a normal flight we usually go no higher than a few thousand feet. Also, the air temperature decreases at a rate of about 3 degrees F per 1000 feet, so flying at 10,000 feet can get quite chilly.
Q. When are the best times to fly?
A. Early morning, shortly after sunrise when the winds are calm, or 2-3 hours prior to sunset when the afternoon convective activity is dying down. The balloon has such a large "sail" area, that flying with surface winds over 8 mph is usually not advised.
Q. Where do we land? How will we get back to our car?
A. Since a balloon travels with the wind, it is not possible to predict exactly where the balloon is going to land ahead of time. Our chase crew will follow us as we are airborne, maintaining radio contact, so that they can assist us as we come in to land. Safety is our number one priority, and we look to land in areas clear of crops, livestock, and other obstacles, especially power lines. Balloonists are highly dependent upon the goodwill of landowners, therefore we do everything possible to get permission prior to landing, minimizing any damage to their land, and thanking them with a bottle of champagne upon landing. After the balloon is packed up and stowed in the trailer, we will drive everyone back to our original meeting place, and if we haven't celebrated with the landowner, we will then enjoy food and drink in the company of our new found friends, and toast the memories of our unique flight.
Q. If I wanted to pursue a balloon license, what would be involved? How expensive is the sport?
A. Balloons range from small experimental types, to huge "special shape" balloons, and the cost varies accordingly. The balloon community is comprised of people from all walks of life, including teachers, farmers, lawyers, police, secretaries, you name it. A Private license can cost from $4,000 - $6,500 depending upon whether you have your own balloon or not. A Commercial/Instructor's rating will cost an additional $2,000 to $3,000. Pilot applicants must also complete a ground school course, take an FAA written exam, and complete a satisfactory check-ride with an FAA designated examiner.
Q. How do I know if my pilot is experienced?
A. Balloon pilots, as with other commercial pilots, are required to do a minimum of 3 take-offs and landings every 90 days. In addition, balloon pilots attend annual safety seminars, and must demonstrate their flying proficiency every two years to an Instructor. Most balloon pilots (myself included) in this area have accumulated well over 500 hours of hot air balloon time. Equally important, though, is how often they fly in any given year, as ballooning is more reliant on sound judgment and experience than are many other types of aviation.
Q. What about advertising on your balloon?
A. We can carry a custom made 12 ft x 24 ft banner at additional cost. Balloons are, by their very nature, outstanding aerial billboards which attract attention from miles around. Balloon festivals alone attract over 30 million visitors each year, and several times that number see balloons floating over their neighborhoods during the course of the year.
Q. What about getting married or engaged in a balloon?
A. In the past I did occasionally take people aloft to get married, but since expectations are so high, and the weather may not cooperate, I have decided to no longer agree to do wedding flights, or post-wedding flights. If you are flexible with your plans, I will gladly take you and your intended up so that you can propose while airborne, but again, bear in mind that ballooning is a fair weather sport, and I will always err on the conservative side when it comes to deciding whether to fly or not.
Q. What if I have a fear of heights?
A. Many people, even those who can not ride on a ferris wheel, have had a wonderful time ballooning. Ballooning is not the same as flying on a small airplane where you feel the sudden ups and downs, and the motion makes you airsick. Most balloon passengers are surprised to know that they are off the ground, as the motion is generally very smooth, and once airborne, the balloon floats along effortlessly with the wind, so there is very little sensation of movement. That being said, if you know that you have a fear of heights, I would recommend not looking straight down, and I would definitely suggest that you discreetly mention this to your pilot ahead of time so that he can plan his profile accordingly. In 35+ years of flying balloons, only once have I had someone want to land early due to a fear of heights.
Q. What does "GONE" stand for?
A. Gondolas over New England!