The first impression that comes to mind when we see hot air balloons is the free spirit and grace of floating where ever the wind decides to take you. But there is much more to a hot air balloon launch and flight that just riding the wind.
Hot air balloons are considered aircraft and are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just as fixed-wing aircraft are. Hot air balloon pilots must pass a yearly in-flight certification to maintain his or her license as a commercial pilot. The Great Falls Balloon only invites pilots who have met these qualifications.
The balloons themselves must pass a yearly safety inspection which includes testing the fabric of the balloon, fuel system, integrity of the basket, burners and all other related equipment before the balloon receives its annual air worthiness certificate to fly.
Unlike fixed-wing aircraft, a hot air balloon is dependent upon fair weather. Ideal conditions are calm winds below 8 mph and cool temperatures. Since wind and heat come with the sun, the ideal time for a balloon to fly is early in the morning before the sun gets too high in the sky and in the early evening as the sun begins to descend. The exception to this rule would be wintertime flying when the sun is less intense.
To inflate the balloon, pilots use inflation fans to fill the balloon with outside air. This process is called cold packing. When the balloon is inflated enough the pilot uses his burner to heat the inside air to approximately one hundred degrees warmer than the outside temperature. This is when the balloon takes shape and is ready to fly on a new adventure.
It is the heat inside the balloon that makes the balloon rise. If the outside air temperature is too high, the pilot would need to add more heat to the balloon to compensate. High heat can cause damage to the fabric of the balloon. This is why balloons rarely fly in the heat of the day.
Hot air balloon pilots are always aware of the weather and the function of their equipment. The safety of the people in the basket is a top priority for the pilots always have the final say in whether the conditions are right for them to fly.