Balloons need stable winds to operate effectively and the hours just following sunrise and approximately 2 hours before sunset are the best for finding these winds. Since balloons move with the air, the weather is very important in deciding whether or not to fly. The pilot chooses a launch site to use the wind currents to fly towards a suitable landing site.
When the time comes to put the balloon up, the envelope is removed from the bag and laid out in a long line. The burners are attached to the uprights, and the basket is attached to the cables on the bottom of the envelope. An engine driven fan is used to inflate the envelope with cold air. When partially inflated, the air is heated by a burner and the envelope rises above the basket. With further heating, there is sufficient 'lift' for the balloon to fly.
To heat the air, the burners are fueled by propane gas, much the same as you probably use in your backyard barbecue grill. The burners do not run continuously; they are only used intermittently to heat the air to maintain the required lift.
Depending on the weight capacity, balloons may be as tall as 100 feet but the average balloon is 70 feet.
Most balloons are larger than your house. They hold from 19,000 to 211,000 cubic feet of air and loom from 50 to 90 feet.
Again...it depends on the wind speed. Hot Air Balloons travel with the wind and an hour flight can carry it up to 15 miles, sometimes more, sometimes less. The balloon also flies at different altitudes. Although the balloon is at the mercy of the wind when it comes to direction, the vertical control of a balloon can be very precise. It is not unusual for our pilots to be able to brush the bottom of the basket across the tops of brush, or inches from the ground A leaf picked from a treetop is a very worthwhile souvenir of the flight!
Most balloonists enjoy low level flight. The typical balloon flight would be anywhere from treetop level to about 3,000 feet above the ground.
Radios are used to stay in contact with the chase crew as well as with Air Traffic Control and other aircraft flying in the vicinity.
The Federal Aviation Administration issues a Balloon Pilot Certificate to candidates, who pass an FAA written examination, obtain a prescribed number of hours in a balloon, make a solo flight to altitude, pass a flight test, and submit a medical statement.
The balloon goes wherever the wind takes it. However, pilots can seek higher or lower altitudes to find wind currents of various directions. We refer to it as the truest form of sailing.
A balloon flies better in cooler weather since the hot air gets a better "lift." Balloonists usually fly just after dawn or before dusk, because there is less wind at these times.
At high altitude, it is colder than at ground level, generally 3.5 degrees colder for each 1,000 feet of altitude.
The colorful envelope is usually made of nylon or polyester, the same type of cloth that parachutes are made of. It is very tightly woven and is coated with a material that makes it very air tight. The nylon is only used to keep the hot air in the balloon. The basket load is transferred by steel or Kevlar cables to a series of vertical load tapes which carry the load. Balloons range in size from about 54,000 cubic feet for a one- or two-person balloon to over 250,000 cubic feet for a balloon capable of carrying a pilot plus eight or ten passengers.
The wicker basket has proven to be very strong for its weight and is flexible. The wicker is sometimes woven around a steel or aluminum frame, which helps to support the upright posts upon which the burner is mounted. The top rim of the basket and the uprights are usually padded and covered in suede or leather.
As in most sports there is a way that you can compete against other balloons in a test of skill. Ballooning is a little different in that it does not rely on speed like most other aircraft. Balloons travel at the same speed as the wind, therefore all balloons travel at approximately the same speed. If there was to be a competition based on airspeed alone, it would be a draw between all competitors.
Balloon pilots compete against each other based on accuracy. The object is to get the closest to a target set by a third party, in this case, the competition director. The closest to the target gets the most points and over several flights this leads to an overall winner.
It is still, however, not that simple. The target is usually identified by a large cross with 30 feet arms. Balloons are approximately 50 feet tall, 35 feet in diameter, and there can be up to 100 in a competition. Now basic math says it is impossible to fit that many balloons at a single target. Because of this, weighted streamers (markers) are used as a substitute for landing. These markers are thrown at the target from any height and the closest marker to the target wins that task. One flight can have up to 4 tasks, which means the pilots and their teams are working overtime to complete the flight with a good point score.
Balloons are amazingly agile aircraft for their size. Although you can't steer them in the conventional manner, you can "steer" them by using different wind directions at different altitudes. Wind direction in not exactly the same as you go up, sometimes there can be minor deviations in direction, at other times there is considerable "steerage" available for the pilot to use. Pilots ascertain this direction through a device called a "windreader" which uses a theodolite hooked to a computer to track the climb rate and direction change of a small helium filled balloon. By using the different directions, top level pilots are amazingly accurate and it is not uncommon to have 20-30 pilots closer than 3 feet from the center of the target from distances as far as 5 miles away.