On September 19, 1783, brothers Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier launched the first hot-air balloon passengers- a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. Flights with humans soon followed. People had long dreamed of taking to the skies, and now it was possible.
Exciting and peaceful at the same time, a hot-air balloon ride will give you the opportunity to rise above your fellow man. Be prepared for spectacular views and an unforgettable experience. As Leonardo da Vinci said himself, “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
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Step 1: Balloon Terminology
While it is true that learning about hot-air balloons is not required to have an enjoyable flight, knowing what is going on around you will increase the level of enjoyment. It is possible that you may be asked to help prepare the balloon for flight or help pack it up. You may want to ask intelligent sounding questions to the pilot or crew. Here is a list of some of the most commonly used ballooning terms:
Bag: A large canvas bag used to store the balloon envelope.
Basket: Usually made of wicker, the basket is the carriage that holds the passengers, fuel, and flight equipment. Sometimes called a gondola.
Burner: The device that converts liquid propane to vapor and burns the vapor to heat the air in the balloon envelope. Sometimes called a heater.
Chase Vehicle: A vehicle used to track the balloon and bring crew to the balloon landing site.
Crew: The hardworking individuals that prepare the balloon for flight, track the balloon, and help retrieve the balloon after landing.
Cold Inflation: Initial inflation process where the balloon is filled with ambient air with the use of an inflator fan.
Crown Line: A cord or rope attached to the top most portion of the balloon. Used to help stabilize the balloon during inflation and deflation.
Deflation Line: A red or “candy-cane” colored rope which is used to control the deflation port.
Deflation Port: Usually a parachute-like structure at the top of the balloon that is used to release excess hot air. Used to allow the balloon to descend or to empty the balloon of air.
Drop Line: A rope connected to the basket that allows ground crew to control the balloon from the ground.
Envelope: Often made of rip-stop nylon, the Envelope is the fabric “balloon” part of the balloon.
Fuel Tanks: Fuel tanks sit in the basket and supply propane to the burner.
Inflation Fan: A powerful fan used to ‘cold inflate’ the balloon.
Mouth: The opening at the base of the balloon where the air is blown in during inflation, and where the air is heated during flight.
Skirt: Flame retardant cloth descending from the balloon mouth to limit distortion of the burner flame caused by breezes.
Tethers: A flight option where the balloon is anchored to the ground in such a way that the balloon can ascend and descend, but cannot travel horizontal distance.
Tie Off: A rope that anchors the basket and balloon to the chase vehicle. The tie off keeps the balloon secure in case of a sudden breeze during inflation.
Step 2: Deciding If a Ride Is Right for You
Not everyone is capable of taking balloons rides. All passengers should be in good health, and capable of climbing in and out of the basket. In ballooning, safety is always the number one priority.
Typically, all passengers:
-Must be at least 3 feet tall and over the age of six
-Must have parental permission of under 18
-Must be able to stand for at least one hour
-Must be capable of walking a distance of up to two city blocks
-Must be able to withstand the jolt of jumping off the equivalent of three household steps.
Please alert the pilot to any medical conditions such as heart conditions, back or hip problems, weak knees, or recent surgeries. If you are unsure about health conditions, you should consult the pilot or a physician.
NOTE: Most pilots will NOT fly a pregnant passenger.
Step 3: Choosing a Flight Package
Flights are held in the early morning or evening. Fewer people chose to take the early morning flights despite the fact that these flights are often more tranquil, sometimes cheaper, and usually offer better views of wildlife.
There are many different flight packages available, but not all pilots offer all types of packages. Economy flights are sometimes made with large balloons holding 14 or more passengers plus the pilot.
If you wish for a more intimate flight, flights can be booked just for couples. This means there will be three people in the basket including the pilot. This is a very popular choice for dates, anniversaries, and engagements. Some balloon ride companies partner with limo services to help make the time spent on the ground as memorable as the time spent in the air. If you are celebrating a special occasion, or plan on proposing, please let your pilot know beforehand.
If you would like a private balloon flight to launch from your private property, or from an outdoor event, many pilots can accommodate depending on the specific site details. Tether flights can also be arranged to allow all of the event guests to enjoy a moment of time in the balloon.
It is a common tradition to end each flight with Champagne or a Mimosa. If this interests you, inquire before booking the flight. There will always be an non-alcoholic substitute available.
Step 4: Finding a Pilot
Word of mouth is the best advertising for balloon flights. People see the balloons in the air and wish to be up there. If you don’t know of any balloon pilots in your area, check the yellow pages. You may also hear advertisements on the radio or see balloons at an event.
Finding a balloon ride company on the internet can be tricky as there are many websites that sell fraudulent gift certificates. http://www.1800skyride.com/ is one such site and claims to sell rides all over the US, even in places where there are no balloon pilots. For information about this scam, check out http://www.1800skyride.org. To avoid this scam, when looking for pilots online, try to find one with a local phone number, a local address, and perhaps pilot biographies. If you are unsure, call the number and see if the person answering can tell you specific information such as the flight experience of the pilot that will be flying you.
A good place to look for pilots is http://www.blastvalve.com/Balloon_Rides/index.shtml, as this website provides links to individual commercial ride companies.
Unless you are on vacation and can book a ride soon before a flight, finding a pilot close to you is the best option. Hot-air ballooning is very weather sensitive and often the decision of whether to fly or not to fly is made an hour or two before the flight.
Step 5: Preparing for Flight
Come to the flight prepared. Because the balloon’s landing site is often unknown, wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes. You may wish to bring a camera and sunglasses. The temperature while flying is often the same as on the ground, but because flights are held in the early morning and evening, the temperature can change quite dramatically and jackets are recommended. It can also feel hot while the burning is running, so a hat may be desired. Because of limited space in the basket, be prepared to leave anything else on the ground.
All pilots will require that you will out a liability waiver before the flight. Don’t be alarmed, ballooning is actually considered one of the safest forms of flight.