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  • Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Hot-Air Balloons (But Were Afraid to Ask)


  • MAR 12, 2011
  • WRITTEN BY: Evie Stacey

When you see a hot-air balloon on the ground, it doesn’t look like much-just a big pile of nylon and a wicker basket. But fill it with air, and suddenly you see a beautiful, stately balloon rising over the treetops. There’s something magical about seeing a colorful balloon floating high above the earth or skimming the trees. If you’ve ever been curious about hot air balloons, here are a few commonly asked questions and answers.

How do balloons work?

It’s very simple: hot air likes to rise above cool air. A burner heats the air within the balloon’s “envelope”-the colorful nylon “balloon” part. As the air heats up, it becomes warmer than the air around it. This causes it to rise, taking the basket and its contents along with it. When we think of balloons, most of us think of the rubber party balloons that we blow up with helium or our own lungs. Helium is a gas that’s lighter than air, which is why helium balloons also float. But helium can leak out of a balloon from any direction, which is why the bottom of the balloon must be tied off. But a hot air balloon has a big hole in the bottom. You’d think the hot air would leak out of that hole, causing the balloon to sink. This isn’t possible, however, because hot air is buoyant-while it is hotter than the outside air, all it can do is rise. The air can’t leak out the bottom because it can’t move downward.

What is the “balloon” part made from?

Most of the “envelope” on many hot-air balloons is made from nylon. Nylon is a good fabric for hot air balloons: it’s airtight, lightweight and strong, and most importantly, it withstands heat well without melting. Towards the bottom, near the burner, the envelope incorporates a fabric called Nomex. Nomex is a flame-resistant material that’s also used in clothes worn by firefighters. It’s needed for extra protection in the area closest to the flame.

Why is the basket always made of wicker?

When you ride in a hot-air balloon, you stand in a large wicker basket. You’d think wicker wouldn’t be the best choice-surely there are sturdier, more flame-resistant materials out there. But balloonists use wicker baskets for a reason. Wicker is lightweight and strong. It’s also flexible-something a metal basket can’t offer. When a balloon lands after a flight, it can sometimes hit the ground with a bit of a bump. The flexible wicker absorbs most of the shock of the landing, so riders aren’t jarred too much when they touch the ground.

What’s it like to fly a hot-air balloon?

A pilot can only move a hot air balloons up and down. The pilot tells the balloon to rise by turning on the burner, heating the air within the envelope. There is a hole in the top that can be opened to release some warm air, causing the balloon to sink.Balloon pilots may not be able to move the balloon directly from side to side, but they will move that way if powered by the right winds. The pilot can raise or lower the balloon to catch a wind current that’s going in the right direction. A good balloonist knows the prevailing wind directions in his area and can find the right level for each direction he wants to go in.

What’s it like to ride in a balloon?

Experiencing the thrill of hot air balloon rides is surprisingly peaceful. While airplanes soar, dive, and race through the skies, balloons drift. They can only go as fast as the winds around them, which isn’t too fast-generally around 8 to 16 kph. Because there’s no motor or propellers, the ride is quiet and tranquil-broken occasionally by a blast from the burner. They usually cruise at around 300 metres-not too high, but high enough to clear buildings and trees. Many balloons fly between 30 and 600 metres high. No balloon can go higher than 4,000 metres without requiring an oxygen mask, but no commercial hot air balloon flight will go that high. Hot air balloon flights available across the UK including counties such as Kent, Essex, Sussex, Devon, Yorkshire or Oxfordshire can be a great gift for an anniversary or birthday, or a wonderful “just-because” activity. Hot air balloon rides can be romantic-bring along some champagne and chocolates-or a fun activity for the family. No matter the occasion, there’s nothing quite like drifting above the earth, seeing things from a new perspective as you ride the winds.


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