Hot Air Ballooning for Beginners

Getting ready for an evening flight over the Cotswolds

Hot air balloons first appeared back in the late 1700's and have since made a reappearance in our skies in the late 60's with the introduction of new light weight materials and more purpose made hot air burners.
These burners and materials have been gradually upgraded to what we have got used to now, a state of the art piece of kit with long lasting envelope material,strong yet flexible baskets and powerful but quiet burners.
Learning to fly a modern hot air balloon is a relatively straightfoward process and involves practise flying with a qualified pilot on board interspersed at regular intervals with a flight with an instuctor who will ensure you are following the structured training programme of the BBAC British Balloon & Airship Club. When your instructor is satisfied that you are competent in all the excercises involved in the training programme then he will recommend that you take your examination flight.
Meanwhile you will have passed written exams in air law, meteorology, navigation, balloon systems and human performance.

Your examination flight if successful is followed by a short solo flight supervised from the ground or another balloon by your examiner or instructor. Having completed this you send off your cheque to the CAA Civil Aviation Authority and off you go as a qualified pilot.
Now you really start to learn how to fly, every decision is your own, there is no one to hold your hand and you have to sort out your own mistakes.

So,how does a balloon fly. Simple, hot air rises being less dense than colder air. Trap that hot air in a bag of nylon and if you get it hot enough it will lift that bag of nylon. Get it even hotter and it may even lift the bag of nylon and a wicker basket with fuel tanks, pilot and passenger underneath.
There comes a point when the nylon will get too hot and will melt. At this point you are obviously attempting to lift too much weight.

So what happens when we want to lift more weight, if you cant get the air any hotter then you need to be able to heat more air so the answer is a bigger bag of nylon.
With this in mind you can lift theoretically any amount of weight given a big enough balloon. At balloon meetings all around the country you will see balloons of all sizes, typically in normal conditions a balloon of 21,000 cubic foot will carry 1 person, 77,000 cu ft will carry 3 persons, 120,000 cu ft will carry 6 persons all the way up to 20 persons carried under a 400,000 cu ft balloon. This is the largest balloon currently operating in the UK.
At Head in the Clouds Balloon flights we fly a 6 person balloon as we feel this is a nice personal friendly group without the bus ride feel you get in larger balloons.

Now when should a balloon fly, that will depend on the experience of the pilot and the conditions he is comfortable with. Beginners obviously have to be very careful of flying in conditions they have no practical experience of. So the first limiting factor is the windspeed at ground level. This should ideally be in the range 0-7mph. Above this and the inflation can get rather tricky with the balloon wallowing around from side to side, the landing also will be problematical in higher windspeeds. In low speeds the balloon basket will touch the ground, maybe bounce a few times and then stop upright. In speeds of over 10mph the basket will tip on to its side and drag along until it is emptied of hot air. This is done by pulling on a red line which opens a deflation panel in the top of the balloon. In higher windspeeds you need a much larger space to land the balloon as it is going to drag along the ground for some distance and you would also want to miss any upwind obstacles such as trees by a greater amount as any turbulence associated with high winds may pull you down into them.

Second factor is precipitation, rain and snow. Flying in precipitation , more especially heavy rain will make the balloon envelope heavy and less responsive to the heat you are introducing, in short it will want to fall out of the sky. Coupled with this precipitation tends to be linked with stronger gusty winds and turbulence which will make the balloon difficult to control.
Third factor is visibility. You need obviously to be able to see where you are going to be able to land safely. In fog conditions you are unable to see the ground and there may be anything down there, you may come down through fog and be lucky enough to find a normal field. However there may also be trees, houses or electricity power lines. Landing on any of these will make you very unpopular and may even be fatal. For the same reason it is best to land your balloon before darkness falls.
Balloons also tend to avoid thermals, these are caused by the sun heating the gound resulting in upcurrents and resultant downdraughts all of which make a balloon very difficult to control. For this reason balloons tend to fly before and after there is any heat in the sun, maybe for the first hour or 2 after sunrise and a couple of hours before sunset. On days with thick layer cloud thermals don't tend to be as much of a problem and in winter when there is no heat in the sun there may be no thermals even on a bright sunny day.

Balloons can fly at almost any height that you can breathe, above these heights you would need oxygen. At Head in the Clouds we tend to fly our passengers at a variety of heights between ground level, skimming the tops of trees and 5000ft, a mile high, although around 500ft seems to be passengers favourite. Our flights for passengers last for about 1 hour and our destination could be anywhere, literally where the wind takes us. Our trusty retrieve team will be tracking the balloon in our land rover and will take all our guests back to the launch field after the flight where they will receive a flight certificate signed by their pilot detailing take off and landing points.
We fly weekend morning and evenings throughout the year and weekday evenings in the summer months from April to October. Other times are available for group bookings, just give our office a call on 01635 43719.
Although we fly passengers in the south of England we have flown extensively abroad including the French and Austrian Alpine regions,the Belgian Ardennes region, all over France and twice in the Japanese coastal city of Saga. All of these give us a marvellous base of experience and many magnificent tales to tell.

David Head - Head in the Clouds

To book a balloon flight with us simply call our office on 01635 43719
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