How Hot Air Balloons Work

Launching and Landing

A lot of the work in hot air ballooning comes at the beginning and the end of the flight, when the crew inflates and deflates the balloon. For the spectator, this is a much more spectacular show than the actual balloon flight.

Once the crew has found a suitable launching point, they attach the burner system to the basket. Then they attach the balloon envelope and begin laying it out on the ground.

Once the envelope is laid out, the crew begins inflating it, using a powerful fan at the base of the envelope.

When there is enough air in the balloon, the crew blasts the burner flame into the envelope mouth. This heats the air, building pressure until the balloon inflates all the way and starts to lift off the ground.

The ground crew members hold the basket down until the launch crew is on board. The balloon basket is also attached to the ground crew vehicle until the last minute, so the balloon won't be blown away before it is ready to launch. When everything is set, the ground crew releases the balloon and the pilot fires a steady flame from the burner. As the air heats up, the balloon lifts right off the ground.­

Amazingly, this entire process only takes 10 or 15 minutes. The landing process, combined with deflating and re-packing the balloon envelope, takes a while longer.

When the pilot is ready to land, he or she discusses possible landing sites with the ground crew (via an onboard radio). They need to find a wide open space, where there are no power lines and plenty of room to lay out the balloon. As soon as the balloon is in the air, the pilot is constantly looking for suitable landing sites, in case there is an emergency.

The balloon landing can be a little rough, but an experienced pilot will bump along the ground to stop the balloon gradually, minimizing the impact. If the ground crew has made it to the landing site, they will hold the basket down once it has landed. If the balloon isn't in a good position, the crew pulls it along the ground to a better spot.

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The ground crew sets out a ground tarp, to protect the balloon from wear and tear. Then the pilot opens the parachute valve all the way, so the air can escape out the top of the balloon. The ground crew grabs a cord attached to the top of the balloon, and pulls the envelope over onto the tarp.

Once the balloon envelope is down on the ground, the crew begins pushing the air out. When the balloon is flattened, the crew packs it into a stuff sack. This whole process is a lot like packing up a giant sleeping bag.