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An introduction to hot air ballooning

There is only form of aviation that requires more enthusiastic, unpaid helpers than it does pilots. A form of flight during which you can clearly see, hear, and even smell the land you fly over. One in which even novice pilots are allowed to fly in formation. It also draws the biggest number of spectators for a single sporting event at Bristol each year. It is, of course, hot-air ballooning.

Balloons fly in the early morning or late evening. If you have seen a balloon floating in the midday haze of winter you may think this statement to be inaccurate but believe me, in the summer and the last place you want to be at midday is up in a hot-air balloon.

The reason for this is the rising columns of warm air known as thermals. These are great for gliders but make a mockery of height control in a balloon. In the depths of winter thermals do not develop, hence the opportunity for all day flying. In fact some balloonists take advantage of this and compete against each other, seeing who can cover the greatest distance in one day in a competition known as the ‘long jump’, which is organised by the BBAC (British Balloon and Airship Club). If you are serious about taking up this sport as a pilot, you would be well advised to join this club (see clubs page).

Balloons come in all shapes and sizes. A quick glance through this web-site will show you that we mean all shapes. But most of these exotic designs are marketing tools and are invariably operated by dedicated companies such as ourselves. These shapes, while being a wonder to behold, are expensive to build, sometimes tricky to operate and can need a small army to inflate and pack away.

Most sport balloonists therefore fly more conventionally-shaped balloons. The sizes vary according to the number of people they are designed to carry. Without going into the science of the subject, the rule is: the bigger the envelope (the ‘balloon part itself) the more hot air it can hold, and therefore the more lift there is available to carry people.

Starting from the smallest, arguably the most adventurous form of the sport is one-man ballooning. These chariots, with their envelopes of around 35,000 cubic feet capacity, afford the pilot exposure to both the element in which he or she flies and also the substance on which they land! Not a sport for the faint-hearted, it is exhilarating and a branch of the sport which has a group of dedicated advocates. Some of these can be seen at the larger balloon festivals or, at the end of the season, at their dedicated event, the "One Man" meet.

Most pilots, though, prefer the comfort, sociability and protection of a balloon basket. If we ignore single-man baskets, these balloons start from 65,000 cubic feet for two people, 77,000 for three and 90,000 for four. These are extremely rough figures as actual carrying capacity must be calculated on the day by the pilot and is dependant on ambient temperature and the individual weights of the people intending to fly, plus, of course, the balloon, equipment and fuel. In cold weather with slim passengers or even children you might be able to add an extra passenger.

Balloon flight operators generally use balloons larger than these, ranging from 120,000 cubic feet (four passengers plus pilot) to 350,000 (eighteen passengers plus pilot). There are larger balloons around, but these generally are flown in countries where the landing opportunities are more abundant than in the UK.

This is because the larger the balloon, the greater the number of crew you are going to need to inflate and pack it away. By happy coincidence, and as already pointed out, the larger the balloon the greater its carrying capacity. So pilots tend to fill their baskets, ensuring a ready number of willing crew to perform the various tasks.

It still requires one or more individuals on the ground though, to follow the balloon in the retrieve vehicle. The task of the retrieve crew is not just to get the passengers and balloon back to the original launch site, but also to act as a liaison between the pilot and the owner of the land the balloon has descended upon.If the landowner cannot be located, the rule is that the equipment.

If the landowner cannot be located, the rule is that the equipment is carried to the nearest public access. Obviously the greater the number of crew the easier this task becomes.

So how do you actually get involved in this wonderful pastime?

Well, at the most basic level you can simply spend a day out at your nearest balloon festival, details of which can be found in our festival page. Some enthusiasts, known as spotters, use these events to seek out and record balloon registrations in their log books. Others that join one of the many ballooning clubs across the country (see clubs page) end up crewing for one or more of the balloons, which involves an early morning or late afternoon drive through the country and some hefty physical work, man-handling the balloon and its basket on and off the retrieve vehicle. As some compensation, the crew usually gets breakfast thrown in or a pint at the pub in the evening.

Competitions organised by the various clubs require organisation and stewarding, and this is where the role of the ‘competition observer’ comes into play. The work usually involves measuring how far streamers dropped from the competing balloons are away from the target, together with some serious map reading skills.

Both crews and observers, by way of thanks, do get to fly eventually, but if you are impatient and can’t wait to get aloft, you can circumnavigate the system and simply pay for a flight (see charter page).

Finally, of course there are those people that actually get to set out on a journey, not knowing where they are going - the pilots. To become a pilot, some people will spend long hours crewing in return for flying lessons. As regards owning a balloon, many people join or form a syndicate to help spread costs while others pay an individual or organisation for the use of their balloon. Others still may buy a second-hand balloon (see links page) or go the whole hog and order a new balloon outright (see links page, Cameron and Kubiceck).

Flying Billboard balloon

Both our white balloon and our original Rainbow Balloon flying together at Northampton Balloon Festival 2006

Hours building in France

If you are hours building one of the best places to go is Metz in France which is held bi annualy

Bristol balloon festival

The Bristol Balloon Festival is a great place to see balloons but you cannot fly there until you have more than 25 hours P1 (pilot in command) hours

Rule is higher balloon gives way

Flying in close proximity of another balloon is good fun. The rules are that the higher balloon takes the neccessary avoidance action so you need to keep a good look out below

Alburguerque festival a good place to visit

For many balloonists a trip to the Albuquerque festival in New Mexico is the ultimate aim. 800 balloons flying together!