- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2007

One of the smoothest ways to fly is not on the wings of a bird or in the cockpit of a plane, but in a hot-air balloon, says Rick Behr, president of Bear Balloon Corp. at the Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville.

He has flown hot-air balloons as a full-time occupation since 1974, traveling over countries including France and Switzerland. Many people think riding in a hot-air balloon is similar to riding a Ferris wheel or roller coaster. On the contrary, he says, it’s as if the Earth is moving and the balloon is standing still.

“Flying in a balloon is much slower than other forms of flight,” Mr. Behr says. “You have to go with the wind. There’s no rhyme or reason to take a balloon ride except for the joy of it. You never really know where you’re going.”

Many scientific components need to be just right for a hot-air balloon to take off. Over the years, the balloon has advanced and changed with technology.

Ballooning is very weather sensitive, says Liana Haseltine, owner of Blue Ridge Balloon Co. in Palmyra, Va. The company charges $195 per person for a one-hour hot-air balloon trip.

Before balloons launch into the air, Mrs. Haseltine checks the forecast from National Flight Services, which has provided professional service to the aviators since 1960.

“You pay attention to precipitation and thunderstorms,” Mrs. Haseltine says. “You don’t fly in winds that are 10 miles an hour or above. You don’t fly in fog. A thunderstorm could completely destroy the aircraft.”

Hot-air balloons always need three miles of visibility, according to the visual flight rules established by the Federal Aviation Administration, she says.

After the weather is taken into consideration, a test balloon is launched to gauge the winds, Mrs. Haseltine says. The test balloon is usually a simple party balloon filled with helium. Black balloons are easiest to see in the sky. Then the balloon envelope and basket are set up for flight.

“The basic concept is very simple,” Mrs. Haseltine says. “Hot air rises. Cool air sinks, which we all know from our most basic science course.”

The concept of hot air rising has stayed the same since the inception of ballooning in 1783, she says. The Montgolfier brothers of Annonay, France, are credited with creating and launching the first hot-air balloons. Their father’s paper factories supported their experiments.

In that era, nothing man-made had ever flown before, says Matt Lidinsky, pilot for Up, Up Away Hot Air Balloon Co. in Baldwin, Md. The company charges $220 per person for a one-hour flight.

“Their biggest worry was once you went up in the air that you wouldn’t survive,” Mr. Lidinsky says. “They were the astronauts of the time. They didn’t have any clue what would happen. So they sent animals up to see if they would survive. There were so many unknowns.”

The modern era of ballooning didn’t start until 1969, Mrs. Haseltine says. Technology advanced so that the balloon envelopes are made from ripstop nylon instead of paper and cotton.

In the 1780s, the heat source was a bonfire, Mrs. Haseltine says. Today it is liquid propane. Today’s baskets, or gondolas, usually are made from wicker.

In the early 1970s, a burner produced 2 million to 3 million British thermal units. Now they create around 20 million to 21 million Btu per burner. Most balloons have two burners.

“It’s much more efficient and makes flying much more precise,” Mrs. Haseltine says. “You have better control. You have more lift because you have more heat.”

Once the envelope is hooked to the basket by cables, two persons hold the mouth of the envelope open until fans fill it with air. The envelopes used by the company hold 105,000 cubic feet of air.

“After about 10 minutes of having the fans turned on, the balloon is packed with cold air,” Mrs. Haseltine says. “As the air heats up, it lifts the balloon off the ground until the balloon is standing upright. Once it’s upright, you get your four or five passengers in the basket. You put a whole lot of heat in it. When you get enough heat in there to create the lift you need to carry the weight, you start flying.”

While in the air, the balloon can hit different layers of wind, she says. Winds at 300 feet may be going east, while winds at 500 feet may be going north. Flights usually take place early in the morning or a couple of hours before sunset, when the air is the most stable and the winds are the lightest.

Balloon pilots usually carry an altimeter to measure the altitude, a variometer to measure the vertical speed, and a pyrometer to measure the temperature inside the envelope at the top of the balloon, Mrs. Haseltine says. Nylon melts at 383 degrees Fahrenheit, so the company never heats the air in its balloons hotter than 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

The heat of the day and total weight of the passengers determines how much heat a pilot needs to use, says Ron Broderick, owner of Friendship Hot Air Balloon Co. in West Friendship, Md. He charges $230 per person for a one-hour flight.

Heat is applied about 20 seconds, he says. On colder days, it doesn’t take as much heat for the balloon to rise.

“I’m always burning propane to make the balloon go higher or stabilize the balloon,” Mr. Broderick says. “You catch the breeze and go wherever it takes you. You can’t determine where you will land.”

Finding a good landing place is always an adventure. In 17 years of flying, Mr. Broderick says, he has landed in almost every place imaginable.

“I’ve landed in the middle of farmers’ fields,” Mr. Broderick says. “What’s fun is when you land in somebody’s back yard. We love watching the response on the faces of people. To us, that’s a lot of the enjoyment.”

Most people like to go on hot-air balloon rides for a break from everyday life, says Michael Gerred, president of Light Flight Balloons Inc. in Bel Air, Md. He charges $195 per passenger for a one-hour flight.

“I have flown meteorologists,” Mr. Gerred says. “They were fascinated with the micrometeorology of a balloon. A balloon is actually a parcel of air in the weather. For them to see it on a microscale was something they found fascinating.”

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