Typical Flight

On arrival at the launch site, the basket (with its disassembled components inside) and the envelope (in a large bag) are first removed from the trailer.

The uprights are attached if necessary, the burner is mounted, connected to the fuel tanks and operated briefly. This tests the burner, the fuel tank pressure, and the integrity of the fuel delivery system. The envelope bag is opened, and the mouth portion of the balloon is pulled out and connected to the basket structure. Then, the bag is pulled way from the basket, in the downwind direction, allowing the envelope to spill out in a straight “streamer” until has all been removed. The sides of the envelope are then sometimes pulled outward to spread the balloon out.

Next comes the beginning of the cold inflation, where the balloon is packed full of cold air, using a gasoline engine fan (typically 5-10hp).

Usually one crew member is stationed at each side of the envelope’s mouth to hold it open and allow the fan to pack it full of cold air. Directly in front of the fan is cold so the task on a cold morning like this often falls to whomever has the most and warmest clothing layers!

The balloon gradually takes shape under the action of the fan. Colder weather is great for balloons, since they use much less fuel when the outside air is colder. This allows more passengers to be carried and/or further distances to be flown.

As this is happening, the pilot is taking care of other important activities such as making sure all of the lines and vents are untangled and correctly arranged, and putting the parachute vent into place at the top of the envelope.

Attaching the parachute vent’s Velcro tabs. The parachute is kept in place by the upward pressure of the hot air once the balloon is inflated. To keep it in place during the inflation, there is a series of Velcro tabs which must be attached. Before takeoff, when the balloon is vertical, the vent is opened once to release these tabs.

Once the balloon is packed with cold air, the pilot crouches behind the burner and operates it continuously for about 30 seconds until the balloon gradually becomes vertical, stepping into the basket during the process. During this hot inflation, one of the crew members holds a line connected to the very top or crown of the balloon, in order to stabilize it horizontally and prevent it becoming vertical too soon (which could lead to some of the fabric billowing too close to the flame and being melted).

The inflation is over when the balloon is standing vertically and neutrally buoyant. At this point, the passengers are invited on board.

Once the balloon is inflated and all of the checklists have been completed, the pilot burns some more to make the balloon lighter than air, and it lifts off.

See you later! This flight ascended to an unusually (for balloons) high altitude of 12,000′, encountering temperatures almost as low as 0F (-18C). Most balloon flights are at altitudes from a few hundred to a couple of thousand feet, at most.

On days when the surface winds are gentle, crew and onlookers can take a picture from directly below, before the balloon drifts away.

The view from directly below the balloon. Here you can see the gores that make up the structure of the envelope. This balloon, a 105,000 cubic foot Firefly 8, has 24 gores. Balloons typically have from 8 gores (very bulbous) on up to envelopes like the one shown here that are almost smooth.

The pilot adjusts the altitude and rate of ascent or descent of the balloon by changing the timing of blasts from the burner, but each blast is typically of the same duration. The instruments on board (an altimeter to indicate altitude, a variometer, to indicate rate of ascent or descent and a pyrometer to indicate the temperature of the air inside the balloon) help, but flying a balloon is primarily an acquired skill that is very visual in nature. The pilot can not directly affect the direction of flight. However, by climbing or descending, he may be able to find winds of varying directions to achieve a modest degree of steering.

While the pilot deals with flying the balloon safely, the chase crew uses a combination of technology (GPS and phones), map-reading (less common, in recent years), experience and direct radio communication with the pilot to follow the balloon as closely as possible using the available roads. It works out best if the crew is present at the landing site before the balloon touches down, or shortly afterwards.

The balloon, just after landing, as viewed from the chase vehicle as we arrive to help with deflation and pack-up. A typical flight is about an hour, and the pilot attempts to land the balloon in a clear area, with room to deflate, and with easy access for the chase vehicle.

The crew then helps to deflate and pack up the balloon. The vehicle is, of course, needed to transport the balloon, and its pilot and passengers back to the launch site. On some landings, the balloon does not remain vertical, typically due to high winds. In these cases, the pilot starts deflating the balloon immediately before the basket strikes the ground, and the basket turns on its side and drags a few feet before coming to rest.

In the event that the landing spot is less than optimum (no place to lay the balloon down, or no access for the chase vehicles) the pilot can make the balloon light, and crew members and/or passengers can “walk the balloon” to a better location.

Once the balloon is in the correct position for deflation, the pilot pulls the vent line and holds it open, releasing the hot air from the balloon. One crew member takes the crown line and helps to pull the balloon horizontal, also ensuring that it does not come down on top of the basket and the still-hot burner.

Looking up into the crown of the balloon from just outside the basket as Robert pulls the vent line and opens the parachute. You can see that the parachute has been pulled down (inward) from the crown by the shadow cast by the open top of the envelope onto the parachute. In the foreground is one of the burners (this balloon has two). At the top of the picture is part of the skirt of the balloon.

Within a minute or so after pulling the vent open, the balloon is almost completely deflated.

Once the balloon is deflated, the remaining air is squeezed out by taking armfuls of the fabric, starting at the mouth, and gathering it into a “streamer” or “sausage”, pushing any remaining air ahead and out through the crown. The envelope bag is then brought to the crown, and the “sausage” of fabric is placed into the back a few feet at a time, as the bag is dragged closer to the basket. The packed-up envelope bag is then placed in the trailer. Finally, the basket and its components are disassembled and stowed, and the basket is also placed on the trailer, and all components are tied down for the trip home.

It’s all hands on deck! Once the pilot or crew squeezes the air out, the passengers, crew, and bystanders are enlisted to help pack the envelope back into it’s bag.

Another flight completed – time for breakfast!