In 1967, the Fifth Dimension asked the musical question, "Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?" The song, which was written by Jimmy Webb, was called Up, Up, & Away. Hot air ballooning began in 1783, with a sheep, a duck, and a rooster as the first passengers. The first human passengers took a ride two months later, on November 21st. While helium and hydrogen balloons were later used by the military, such as in World War I, according to the Aerostar company, which makes hot air balloons and equipment, little progress was made on the development of hot air balloons until the 1960s. Ballooning, as a sport and recreational activity, has been increasing in popularity since then, especially in the United States. There are now over 3,500 balloons in the US and about another 1,000 in other countries.
Hot air balloons are based on a simple concept, hot air is lighter than cold air, and therefore, it rises. Modern balloons have three basic components―a lightweight fabric envelope or balloon, a burner, and a basket to ride in. Usually, the envelope is first inflated by a fan. Then the air inside the envelope is heated with a burner, burning a fuel such as propane. Eventually, as the air inside the balloon gets hotter, it overcomes the weight of the basket and passengers, and you have lift-off. The size and shape (and color) of these three components vary greatly, with some balloons being capable of carrying fifteen or more passengers.
Just as with an airplane, in order to fly a balloon in the US, you have to be licensed by the FAA. In addition to written and orals tests, the requirements for a private pilot's license include at least 10 hours of training, including 6 with an instructor, a solo flight, an ascent to an altitude of 2,000 feet, and two flights of an hour each, within 60 days of applying for the license. However, unlike airplanes or helicopters, hot air balloons cannot be steered, at least not in the traditional sense. The pilot has to rely on the wind. Since the wind can vary based on altitude, limited changes in speed or direction are possible by changing altitude. This method enables pilots to participate in competitions, where the goal is dropping weights onto a target.
Because there is less wind around sunup and sundown, these are usually the times that pilots choose to fly their balloons. They can also fly at night, but because of problems with visibility and the need for instruments and lights, this is rarely done.
Would you like to take a balloon ride, or perhaps even get more deeply involved in the exciting world of ballooning? The Hotairballooning website suggests looking in your local phone book for companies offering rides in your area. Their site also has a ride directory that lists companies by state or Canadian Province. A typical ride lasts about an hour, but many enjoy prolonging the adventure by offering to help with the inflation and deflation of the balloon.
Another way to get more involved with the sport is by volunteering to be a member of the ground crew. The ground crew helps with setting up the balloon, and then follows along in a chase car during the flight, so that they can help the pilot land safely. If you don't know of a pilot in your area, you might find one at a balloon festival. Hundreds of these festivals take place around the world each year.
Balloon festivals are like fairs, with other activities taking place, and food vendors satisfying the appetites of all those waiting to see the balloons fly. And unlike the flight of a group of powered aircraft, as the sun begins to dip toward the horizon, the evening seems to become more still and peaceful, as the sky is filled with the thrilling sight everyone has been waiting for. So then, even if you don't want to get involved with ballooning by helping with the ground crew, or taking a ride yourself, you might still enjoy visiting a festival and watching all the beautiful balloons as they go 'up, up, and away'.