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Above It All: Hot Air Ballooning

Those with No Particular Place to Go, Ballooning is the Only Way to Travel
Terrence Fagan
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 2)

There's a saying that your first flight is free and your second costs $20,000. If a flight turns you into a "balloonatic," as those in the sport occasionally call themselves, the next step is to seek instruction. Pilots will sometimes waive their fee, if your interest is genuine, in exchange for help with the balloon. Ballooning schools are also available, such as the one at World Balloon. "We've got two things going for us," says Wright-Smith, "a good reputation and the weather. We can instruct all year round, and we can get [students] done in a minimum amount of time." The course, including written tests and flight training, costs around $3,000 to obtain a private license. Requirements and costs for a commercial balloonist license are higher.

The balloon (or aerostat, to be technical) is a relatively simple affair. You start with the basket, also called the gondola, usually made of wicker and light woods. It holds the pilot, passengers and steel tanks of liquid propane used for the burners. The burners, mounted on struts coming up from the basket, emit a flame about eight feet long, measured in the millions of BTUs. The flame heats the air in the envelope, which is held to the basket by steel load cables, to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The envelope is usually made of specially coated ripstop nylon or polyester, with a skirt at its base and special vents at the side and top for controlled release of hot air for descents. Inside the basket, three instruments are standard: a pyrometer, which determines the temperature at the top of the envelope, an altimeter, measuring height above sea level, and a variometer, which determines rate of descent and climb. A two-way radio is also recommended to keep in touch with the chase crew.

The chase is part of the thrill of ballooning. After a mass launch, chase crews wheel out of the launch area like Manhattan cabbies jumping a traffic light. The challenge is not only to successfully track your balloon, but to arrive at the landing site at the same time as the balloon--not a simple task when following an unsteerable aircraft. For World Balloon employee Frank Perez, the secret to tracking is simple: "Pray to God that I can, and drive like a bat outta hell."

The cost for a new balloon system depends upon what you want to do. In ordering a balloon, says Sena, "The biggest consideration is money. If you want to have all sorts of spiffy stuff, you better be prepared to write a big check." A basic sport balloon system (carrying three or four people) with a 70,000-cubic-foot envelope starts at about $18,000. Competition balloons begin at about $25,000 (an active group of balloonists holds numerous hot air and gas balloon competitions each year, from Indianola, Iowa, and Battle Creek, Michigan, to Osaka, Japan), while ride balloons, able to carry four or more passengers, go for $30,000 and up. Those figures include the basket, tanks, burners, envelope and instruments. Incidentals such as a two-way radio, an inflator fan, insurance and a chase vehicle are extra. Envelopes today are usually good for 500 or more hours of flight, depending on flying conditions and balloon maintenance. Another category of hot air balloons, called special shapes, are limited only by the imagination and the checkbook. Everything from 150-foot dragons to Sleeping Beauty's castle, from Tony the Tiger to Carmen Miranda, are now flying, at costs running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Another source of balloons is the used ballon market, mainly from the sport ballooning boom of the 1980s, says George Russell, senior pilot at Hot Air Balloons International in New Jersey. "Back in the '80s, everybody had a lot of money and you could buy a complete balloon for $8,500 to $10,000. There're a lot of balloons around; they put 50 hours on 'em and they're sitting around in garages somewhere." But it's buyer beware. Balloon envelopes left sitting in a garage instead of being flown tend to lose their airworthiness quickly, as they mold and the polyeurethane coating on the fabric breaks down. What may seem like a bargain may not hold air.

Some of those balloons are collecting mold because their owners were swept up in the romance of the sport without taking into account the work involved. "The '80s were a surge for ballooning," says Rush. "Some were in it for sport, some were doing it for extra income. But you have to have a real good kharma with your family because of the hours and the times." Which is why so many balloonists involve their spouses and children in the sport.

Balloonists fly twice a day--dawn and dusk, when winds are at their calmest. That means waking up at 4 a.m. for the dawn flight, catching a midday nap, and then preparing for the evening flight--checking weather reports, filling propane tanks, prepping the balloon.

If the winds are calm--usually under six mph in congested areas such as the U.S. Northeast and a few mph higher in open spaces like New Mexico--then you make your flight, touch down and prepare for the next morning. If the weather doesn't cooperate, which happens often--a breeze strong enough to stir your hair is too windy for ballooning--you pack it all up for another day.

Safety is paramount among balloonists, with power lines and unpredictable winds the main concerns. When in doubt about the weather, pilots stay on the ground. Flying out of control and rough landings may make for exciting storytelling, but few pilots take that chance. Those who do usually hear an earful from their fellow pilots when they land. "There's a lot of peer pressure, but there's also a lot of peer education," says Bruce Hale. "We have safety seminars that tell us how to look for power lines," which are extremely difficult to detect from above, among other safety tips.

Another top priority of balloonists is landowner relations. "Ninety-nine percent of the people watching don't mind you landing there," says Rush. "But you gotta make sure your chase crew's there, make sure they have permission, and that they shut the gates." And the pilot has to keep the balloon away from livestock and farm crops, he adds.


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