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How Hot Air Balloon Flights Work


Hot air balloon flight is the application of basic scientific principles. Here we discuss how this balloon rises, fall and how the pilot is able to manoeuvre it when he is flying.

Because hot air is lighter than cool air because of the mass per unit of volume, during trips the balloon rises. If you've ever taken a dive into a pool, you may have felt this effect in water: the surface water is warm, but as you move deeper, the water gets cooler. That's because warm water is lighter than cool water and tends to rise to the top, like air.

The larger the balloon (also called the ‘envelope’) the larger the amount of hot air is needed to lift it off the ground.  A cubic foot of air within a balloon can lift about seven grams of weight. This isn't a lot of weight, which is why the balloon has to be so big. For example: to lift 1000 pounds of weight, you would need at least 65,000 cubic feet of heated air. In order to lift the balloon of the ground, this air is propelled into the envelope to help it rise.

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A balloon is made up of three parts:

  • The envelope, which is the fabric that the balloon is made of.
  • The burner, which pumps in the hot air.
  • The basket, where the passengers and pilot stand.
To move the balloon upwards, the burner is used to regulate the hot air to make the balloon rise and cold air to control the landing.
hot air balloon engine
The pilot manoeuvres the balloon in the air horizontally by changing the vertical position as wind blows in different direction at different altitudes. So to change direction, the balloon goes up or down to the flow of the wind in that particular direction and rides with the wind. If a pilot has a good working knowledge of the wind currents in the area, she can raise and lower the balloon to catch a current moving in the right direction. Still, piloting a balloon isn't an exact science. It's impossible to target the precise location where you'll land. That's why it's usually necessary for someone on the ground to follow the balloon by car to meet the balloon where it lands and transport the equipment.
hot air balloon flight pilot

Launching and landing generally takes more effort than actually flying during a trip. The inflation process takes only about ten or fifteen minutes, and is done with a powerful fan. Once the balloon is full of air it will still lie on the ground until the burner is fired, heating the air in the envelope and causing it to rise.

Hot air balloons come in different sizes to accommodate a certain amount of passengers. The compartment where the pilot stands and the other compartments are split into even sections so that the passengers are separated from the canisters and the pilot and generally to spread weight evenly over the basket so that the balloon remains stable.
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Today propane is used in the burner to heat the air. This is stored into cylinders which are kept in the basket. Propane is a liquid compressed into the canisters and flows to the burner in liquid form. This gas produces a powerful flame and is far more efficient on fuel consumption.

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The envelope is the actual balloon and is made of long strips of nylon and polyester. These materials are coated with a material that makes the balloon extremely airtight and durable. Nylon is very lightweight and has a high melting temperature, which makes the balloon, light and safe for flight. So why doesn't the hot air escape through the hole at the lower end? Simple: buoyancy. Hot air is buoyant, which means it can only rise-it can't sink and drain out the bottom of the balloon. As long as the air stays hot, it will continue to rise. It won't rise forever, though. The atmosphere thins as it goes up, and eventually the air within the envelope is too thin to support the weight of the balloon. The more air within the balloon, the greater the buoyancy-so bigger balloons can go higher than smaller ones.
hot air balloon flight
Today there are numerous hot air balloon flight challenges around the word where pilots challenge each other with this unique form of flying and there have been a number of world records. There's nothing like soaring over the earth in a balloon. Hot air balloon flight is exciting, fascinating, and pure fun. If you've never been on a trip, you're missing out on the experience of a lifetime!
hot air balloon crew
landed air balloon

Interesting Historical facts about Hot Air Ballooning

  • The first balloon that launched was called “Aerostat Reveillon, and was piloted by Pilatre De Rozier, a scientist on the 19th of September 1783 and his passengers were a duck, a rooster and a sheep.
  • The birth of hot air ballooning came about in the centre of Paris on 21 November 1783 and was made by two brothers Jospeh and Etienne Montgolfier. The balloon was in the air for a total of 20 minutes.
  • A swiss scientist called Auguste Piccard was the first to achieve a altitude of 52,498 feet setting the new record - now the race was on to see who could reach the highest point.
  • Richard Branson was the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon and flew 2,900 miles in a record breaking time of 33 hours.
  • For the last 50 years Hot air ballooning has evolved from burning materials onboard to helium and gas as this makes the flight safer and more reliable.

Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any further questions about our trips, or hot air balloon flights in general.