A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

 February 2013   

HOT AIR BALLOONS, the GENTLE GIANTS

     As the winter weather warms up, getting back in the air will be a priority again within a very short period of time.  We’ll get into the spring and summer, and airplanes across the country will begin showing up, uncovered on the tarmac and emerging from cold hangars.  It’s an annual ritual, and has been for many years.  But long before the Wright brothers gave us powered aircraft, hot air balloons were flying in many countries around the world.  The first flights took place in France around 1783, when primitive air bladders were constructed with enough strength to make them airworthy and able to support the weight of a pilot. 

       Modern hot-air balloons became popular only in the 1960’s, and have been primarily used for recreational flying.  Advertisers have taken advantage of the spectacle these balloons provide wherever they’re flown too.  Their color, designs and graceful appearance attract attention even as much as the biggest, loudest jet aircraft. 

         I spend winters away from the Canadian cold in a small, south-west Arizona city that hosts many events geared to attracting winter visitors.  One of these shows is a hot air balloon festival, held over a three-day weekend in mid January.  You might think that having seen the spectacle of fifty or more of these giant balloons launching from the same place, you’d get tired of it.  Not so!  Year after year, folks are attracted to the show and witness these majestic giants floating aimlessly, back and forth where ever the breezes take them.  It’s all very peaceful and magical.  The blue sky is filled with amazing color and designs, an awesome sight to behold. 

          At first glance, it would appear to be a simple matter to pilot one of these balloons.  You just apply the heat to climb, let it cool to descend.  But there is in fact, much more to it.  Transport Canada (and the FAA) have strict rules for licensing pilots of these vehicles.  They’re also issued an air-worthiness certificate, just like a powered aircraft. 

           Hot air balloons are capable of obtaining incredible altitudes and distances.   The record for altitude was set in India where a balloon was flown to almost 69,000 feet, while the longest flight record is nearly 4,700 miles, achieved in 1991 from Japan to northern Canada.   

         There are many hot-air balloon festivals each summer across Canada, and if you’re a pilot, no matter what you fly, you should make an attempt to attend one. You won’t be disappointed. You will marvel at the magic, the serenity and gentle maneuvers, and at the skills these pilots display.  Remember, about the only control they have over a giant balloon is to make it go up and down.  Where it goes is decided by the wind.  The pictures I was able to obtain over the three-day festival can’t capture the experience of watching and riding in the gondola of one of these balloons.  But I have included a few which will perhaps share the magic we all experience when the festival comes to town.

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