Hot to Launch



How would you like to fly an aircraft where you have to arise an hour-and-a-half before sunrise to check on the weather? To fly an aircraft which can only fly safely if surface winds are little more than light and variable... Which needs a minimum crew four but can only carry two or three... An aircraft which can be badly damaged just getting ready for takeoff if one isn't careful... An aircraft which has no real steering capability, which rarely flies more than ten miles on a normal flight, which takes over 30 seconds to respond to control inputs, and which can rarely land where it takes off? From a fixed wing pilot's perspective, this aircraft probably sounds like some odd joke. But these are just some facets of one of the most subtle, beautiful, and yes, even addictive forms of flying... Hot Air Ballooning!

Did you ever go out to the airport for what you thought was an early morning flight, and see balloons flying somewhere off in the distance for only a short time? Or maybe you just saw some in the evening... but never at midday. There's a good reason... smart balloonists only fly within two hours of sunrise and sunset. Midday thermals can cause a balloon's airfoil-like sides to bring the balloon to a stop over one point. And that's big trouble if the point is a bare-earth clear strip containing powerlines marching through a green forest or a factory's roof or a road with typical small but still potentially deadly powerlines. To a balloonist, thermals can be much nastier than just the cause of an annoying bumpy ride.

So, what's it like flying these mystical-looking beasts? Get up at 4:00 a.m.? Three hours before the tower comes to life at most airports? Yes, and that not really too early to get everything done you have to do. Go outside and make sure the leaves on the trees aren't moving, and then call Flight Service or get on your computer and check DUAT. Beyond obvious things like rain or fog, a balloonist's primary concerns are surface winds and winds aloft gradients. Flying a balloon will give you a whole new outlook on what "windy" means. You may even start talking about whether it's "balloon windy" or "airplane windy". Light surface winds to the airplane pilot may look "windy" to the aeronaut! And the gradients in the atmosphere are of more concern too. Are the local forecasts and winds aloft reports predicting calm at the surface but 25 knots at 3000 feet? Then there's going to be a hell of a shear somewhere, and it could be right above the trees ready to "suck you down" when you want to land! Or the winds might get awfully quick down low before you get a chance to land.

Still unsure about whether or not you should go after checking the weather? Call your old instructor across town if you're sure he was planning on flying today, and get his opinion. Still a go? Call your crew and get them awake and moving, then get dressed yourself, make sure you've got everything (which includes little things like the bottle of champagne for the landowner whose you field will land in on up to not-so-little things like making sure the trailer with the balloon is attached when you drive away in an early-morning daze) and head for the launch field.


Balloon launch fields can be anything from farm pastures to school athletic fields to large backyards to yes, even airports! Your launch field may have been selected from one of several the balloonists in your area fly from, with the selection criteria for the morning being which field is upwind of the best landing sites. Launch surfaces vary from dusty, dry desert in the Southwest to nice new-mown lawns in New England. Paved parking lots will scrape up the basket's wood and wicker and are generally avoided. Take off from an airport? Sure, if the airport owner welcomes you. But the grass out in front of his parking lot may look better to you (and to the owner and his fixed-wing clientele) than the runways or taxiways. No matter where the launch field is located, conscientious aeronauts will be sure to ask for permission prior to launch, especially if they ever plan to use the fields again.

As you pull into your launch field, you look around nervously until you spot your crew. Unlike flying a small airplane, where you can just untie it, and "kick the tires and light the fires" all by yourself, as an aeronaut-pilot you will need a crew of two to four others to get your craft into the air. And even more unlike airplane flying, part of your crew is not going to be in the aircraft when you take off! As soon as you're sure your whole crew has arrived, you brief them on the weather and your flight intentions, and assign crew positions. You fill a toy balloon (a "pibal", for purists) with helium and release it, noting it's direction of flight, velocity, and changes of direction as it rises (shears!). Pay attention, because unless the gentle morning breezes change in the next 15 or 20 minutes, you're going where it just went! You also need to pay attention to any subtle breezes near the ground, as these will determine the direction in which you will lay out the balloon. You really don't want it to be rolling around as you do the inflation!

You put your crew to work taking the balloon out of it's resting place in the chase vehicle, and start to "lay it out".The wicker balloon basket, with it's propane tanks and burner assembly, is laid on it's side on the ground. The envelope of ripstop nylon or dacron is partially unpacked and the supporting cables are attached to the basket, along with control lines and the wire to the balloon-top temperature sensor. Two crew members pick up the sides of the heavy bag and run away from the basket, the envelope streaming out of it's storage bag like a huge parachute.


Two of the crew hold the balloon mouth open as the sound of the lawnmower engine driven fan pierces the still morning air and the balloon begins to come to life. A third crewperson at the far end of the balloon envelope holds a crown line to steady the envelope against random wind gusts as it fills with cold air. You begin your preflight with a walk around the rapidly growing balloon looking for any rips and tears in the fabric, adjusting the parachute top or pull-testing the velcro top. Then it's time to check the balloon by poking your head in through the top vent and checking the vent and rip lines.

Now it's time for one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of being a hot-air balloon pilot. Nothing you have ever done will ever fully prepare you for your first balloon inflation, or hundreds of others in the coming years. You may have asked yourself earlier why you would get up at such an ungodly hour. Now, adrenaline flowing, you know why! The anticipation, nervousness, tension, intense concentration, and finally, exhilaration of controlling a ten-to-fifteen foot long flame shooting out of a 12 million BTU per hour burner with a noise like a small rocket engine is something that must be experienced to be believed. If it isn't dead calm, the balloon may be rolling slowly from side to side like a huge beached whale. If your crewperson on the crown line lets up tension on the line too quickly, the balloon can rise prematurely with the sides collapsing inward!

ONE MOMENTARY LAPSE IN CONCENTRATION, EVEN ONE SMALL MISTAKE, AND THERE IS ONE VERY LARGE HOLE IN YOUR BEAUTIFUL BALLOON! But when you keep your wits about you, and as you adjust for the inevitable small problems, the exhilaration is fantastic as the balloon rises majestically over you at your command and becomes a proud and beautiful flying machine!