How Do Hot Air Balloons Work?

Have you ever wondered what keeps a hot air balloon flying? The same principle that keeps food frozen in the open chest freezers at the grocery store allows hot air balloons to fly.

It’s a very basic principle: Hot air rises and cold air sinks. So while the super-cooled air in your grocer’s freezer settles down around the food, the hot air in a hot air balloon pushes up, keeping the balloon floating. A hot air balloon has three major parts: the envelope, the burner, and the basket. The basket is where passengers ride. Usually made of wicker, baskets protect the occupants and are lightweight and flexible. The burner is positioned above the passenger’s heads and produces a huge flame to heat the air inside the envelope.

The envelope is the colorful fabric bag that holds the hot air. When the air inside the envelope is heated, the balloon rises. To descend, the pilot allows the air to cool and the balloon becomes heavier than air. The pilot has complete control of the up-and-down movements by controlling the heat in the envelope. Once airborne, balloons just float with the wind. It is true that the pilot doesn’t know where the balloon will land ahead of time, but that doesn’t mean he can’t control the landing!

Before the balloon is launched, the pilot knows which way the wind is blowing so he knows which way the balloon will go. The air is in layers, and the different layers may be moving in different directions. So even though the pilot can’t steer the balloon, he can move up and down to find a layer of air that will allow the balloon to change direction. Some days the amount of change is very small; other days the balloon may be able to actually turn around and fly in the opposite direction!

During the flight the balloon is followed by the chase crew. The chase crew is usually in radio contact with the pilot, and the crew’s job is to be at the landing site when the balloon touches down. This can be quite an adventure in itself! After the balloon lands, the crew packs the balloon back into the chase vehicle and everyone returns to the launch site. One of the most important parts of being on a chase crew is dealing with the public. When the balloon is landing, the chase crew asks the landowner for permission to retrieve the balloon. We are borrowing someone’s land every time we take off and land, so we are very careful not to disturb or damage someone’s property. We thank the landowner, and by the time the crew is leaving the landing site, most balloonists are already planning their next flight!

Due to the low tolerance that hot air balloons have for flying, they only fly at 6AM and 6PM every day during the festival.  We also offer tethered rides most days and the tethered rides are not as wind and temperature sensitive as the untethered rides.  Sign up for a tethered ride at the festival for only $15!

For those of you who want to fly off into the sunset (or sunrise), book a flight before the festival here.

When can I see a Balloon?

Hot air ballooning is very dependent on weather.  Even when it seems that the weather looks good to you, there are temperature variations and slightly stiff breezes that are enough to make a pilot decide that it isn’t safe to fly.  While it is disappointing to not get to see the balloons fly, safest is our highest priority, and so we don’t want our pilots to take unnecessary risks.  Hot air balloons are generally only on the field just before they get ready to fly, that is at sunrise and sunset.  We will have a tethered balloon on the field as often as we can throughout the festival.