Getting it Right: Hot Air Ballooning

Writing about hot air balloonsOnce upon a time in another life I worked for a premier hot air balloon company in the Napa Valley. In between selling rides, acting as crew, and working as the morning ‘hostess’, I toyed with the idea of flying a hot air balloon for a living and took lessons from a patient and really brave pilot. Needless to say, when I realized the time and monetary commitment involved I soon abandoned my dreams of guiding passengers on a floating tour above the region that I had grown to love so much. In those days, even though you only needed to complete 10 flights and 35 hours to be licensed as a commercial pilot, most balloon companies in the Valley required a minimum of 500 flight hours before they’d even consider hiring you. Five hundred hours takes a LONG time to add up when most flights don’t last more than an hour or two, and several companies required 1000 hours of flying in the Napa Valley itself.

So, in case you’ve been looking for that unusual element to include in your nascent manuscript, here are some pointers to consider when writing a scene which includes your character riding/piloting a hot air balloon. First, some terminology:

Envelope: the fabric (usually rip-stop nylon) part of the balloon (the pretty part)

Gondola: the basket (usually wicker) underneath the envelope that carries the pilot, passengers, and the fuel to fly the balloon (some gondolas can hold as many as 16-18 passengers plus pilot)

Propane: the fuel used in flying a hot air balloon

Propane tanks: fuel tanks filled with propane kept onboard the gondola

Burners: the mechanism used to burn propane to create hot air, providing lift

Ground/Chase Crew: the unsung heroes of the hot air ballooning industry.

Point #1: If they’re gonna fly the balloon, your character will need to know something about wind and weather. Much more so it they’re going to be a commercial pilot. These pilots sleep, eat, and breathe the job. Typically, flight takes place early in the morning or a little before sunset, when winds are calmest. After checking weather reports, the pilot releases a small balloon filled with helium in order to determine wind direction at various altitudes. Calm but moving is best. Too calm and the balloon won’t go anywhere. If you want to make the scene exciting, conjure up a storm front or have the balloon launch during a microburst. I guarantee the ride will be memorable and probably deadly.

Point #2: Hot air balloons don’t have a rudder or steering wheel. When you climb into the basket, it looks like there’s no way to steer—just some serious looking propane burners suspended above your head (propane tanks are secured to the side of the basket or in their own separate section depending on the size of the basket.)

Remember the small helium balloon the pilot released earlier? Well, that showed the pilot which way the wind was blowing at various altitudes. The commercial pilot will have several landing spots in mind and will ‘steer’ the balloon by either climbing or descending to take advantage of wind direction. The pilot burns propane to create hot air inside the envelope allowing the balloon to rise, and then lets the air cool or releases it through a vent located near the top of the envelope in order to descend. You could have several things happen to make it more exciting for your character: they could mistakenly hit a fast cross-current and head toward a power line, a tall building, or a mountain; they could climb too high and lose oxygen (generally above 15,000 feet); the vent could fail to work properly, releasing the hot air and causing the basket to hurtle toward earth; or they could fall out of the basket.

Alternatively, if you’re writing a romance this could be a romantic interlude with your hero and heroine. I know of many couples who said their vows while several hundred feet up in a hot air balloon. Just make sure there’s someone to carry the bride if she’s got heels on. Takeoff and landing sites can be pretty rough terrain for high-heeled shoes (e.g., recently plowed fields or grassy meadows).

Point #3: Your character will not feel the wind in her face or hair, except for a brief moment when ascending or descending and crossing different air currents. There’s no sense of movement because a hot air balloon flies with the wind. It’s serene and quiet, punctuated only by the intermittent burst of the burners (unless you decide to use one of the ideas I mentioned in Point #2). They will hear dogs barking, people talking, and wildlife tends to flush from their hiding places at the flare of the burners.

I remember several instances where passengers who claimed to be afraid of heights were ecstatic at the end of the ride because they hadn’t been scared at all. I’ve heard many reasons for this, but the ones that sounded the most logical to me were because of a.) no sense of movement, and b.) the gondola itself is free of the earth. For some reason, being connected to the ground and high up (like in a building or on a bridge) is what makes things scary for folks suffering from acrophobia.

Point #4: Propane fuel is mostly safe to be around except in a couple of circumstances: a.) when filling the tanks and, b.) when there’s a leak. (In case of a leak, there’s an additive in propane that makes it smell like garlic.) Obviously, crew is not allowed to smoke near the tanks, especially when filling them, but we also had to be careful not to use our cell phones, and wearing polyester clothing wasn’t advised. Static electricity and propane gas just isn’t a good combination, but makes for interesting novel fodder.

Point #5: Landing can be tricky. The main concern for pilots and crew (other than safety and weather, of course) is to have a clear landing site. Occasionally, winds will change direction without warning and the balloon can drift into areas where it’s not welcome. If you’re not familiar with the Napa Valley, it’s populated with expensive homes, but more importantly it’s a premier grape growing region. If a pilot has a rough landing in a vineyard and ends up taking out some vines, the balloon company’s liability could very well include the monetary value of the vine or vines damaged and what they would have produced during a normal lifetime. That can add up to some serious coin—especially if the wine made from the grapes is award-winning.

Which could be an interesting twist if your hero is the pilot…

So, that’s ballooning in a nut shell. If you ever have the chance to take a hot air balloon ride, I highly recommend it. They’re fairly expensive but often include an hour flight followed by a traditional champagne breakfast, either at the landing site or a restaurant depending on the company. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area that has hot air ballooning, try getting to know your local company. Follow the balloons when you see them and watch what the crew does when the balloon lands. Wait until they’re done packing up, then approach a crew member and let them know you’d be interested in crewing for them (for free, of course). Depending on the pilot, you might become their next victim volunteer crew member and eventually wrangle a free ride out of the deal. Be sure to tell them you’re a writer and are doing research for a novel you’re working on and will include them in the acknowledgement section. They’ll love the publicity.

Balloon festivals are another way to get to know pilots and their crew. Smaller festivals are easier to navigate than, say, the giant fiesta in Albuquerque, although seeing hundreds of hot-air balloons ascend at the same time is an experience not to be missed.

Alternatively, you can apply for a job to work for busy companies, usually starting out as crew. Often, the pay isn’t high but the work is fun and getting to know the folks involved in ballooning is a kick. You’ll need to be a morning person, though. Days start hella early.

What are you waiting for?

Author: D.V. Berkom

DV Berkom grew up in the Midwest region of the US, received her BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota and promptly moved to Mexico to live on a sailboat. Several years and at least a dozen moves later, she now lives outside of Seattle, Washington with her sweetheart Mark, an ex-chef-turned-contractor, and writes in the male point of view whenever she gets a chance. Indies Unlimited: https://www.indiesunlimited.com/author/d-v-berkom/ Amazon US author page link: http://www.amazon.com/DV-Berkom/e/B004EVOYH6 Website: www.dvberkom.com

16 thoughts on “Getting it Right: Hot Air Ballooning”

  1. Once I arrived at school as usual for my teaching day and a balloon was being inflated on the school playing field. They said they would take one person from the school for a ride and invited the principal first. I had just built the school their first web site and it had won a government award so the principal offered me the trip as a reward. He even took over my class while I flew away into the blue. As I drifted up into the sky, I looked down at the children in my class far below and heard one call out “Don’t come back!”
    Little horror! (Probably hadn’t done his homework)

  2. Once, while visiting my sister in Ottawa we happened upon a festival just as all the balloons were landing and tying down. The different shapes, sizes and colours were fascinating (they even had Noah’s Ark). A ride is definitely on my bucket list – after I win the lottery.

    Great analogy. I think I’ll opt for a tame ride, though.

  3. Oh boy does this bring back memories of my high school years. My father owned a hot air balloon. It was red, white and blue stripes and where the large patches of blue were, mom had made some stars and sewed them there. She had also made the envelope (we called it a sleeve) to store the balloon in. When ever Dad had accidentally burned it coming down wrong or too fast, she had to patch it so we had lots of the rip-stop nylon on hand.

    Dad’s solo flight to get his license was a real experience. A 72-yr old airplane pilot was flying around and around dad and he wasn’t sure what the pilot was going to do. Where we lived in Lewiston, Idaho back in the middle 1970s people were not familiar with a hot air balloon. When Dad finally landed that day, it was in the city dump and we opened the champagne right there.

    There was another time when the crowd was so huge, us ground crew couldn’t get to him in time to catch the tether rope Dad threw down for us to help him land. I can’t remember where he landed that day.

    During the Asotin County Fair a couple was set to go up with a preacher to get married, but before they showed up, the tether rope broke and up it went, landing some miles up the Snake River Canyon. I remember watching the horses in a truck just stomping like crazy because the propane burners were scaring them. I thought the truck was going to tip over.

    I was upset when he sold it because it was before I turned 17 when I could have gotten my pilot’s license then. You mentioned, DV, about cell phones not being around them…lol, we didn’t have to worry about that then since they were invented yet. I was sure popular in high school for a time. If anyone when to the World’s Fair in Spokane Washington in 1974. They might remember seeing Dad’s balloon on opening day. I didn’t get to go because I had school, but when I did go up, I found a pack of postcards that had the balloon on the front.

    Did you ever work a balloon race, DV? Dad took his balloon to Oregon one summer for some balloon races. He came in first and third in one race and second in another. I can’t remember what the race was called where he placed 1st and 3rd to explain how that was possible, lol.

    And those propane burners are loud. Dad and mom got up early one morning and went flying. It was a clear, calm sunny day. I was awakened by those burners and they were at the end of the street I grew up on, which was about two blocks away.

    I still wish I could have gotten pilot’s license and I still have the large photo hanging on my wall. I wish I could attach it here for all to see how majestic they are. I bet you had a lot fun, DV, as much as I did growing up with one.

    1. Wow–how cool was it to grow up with a hot air balloon??? I would’ve been mad at your dad for selling it, too! Yeah, it was a fantastic job, Jacqueline, and as you say–it’s magical, especially early in the morning when everything’s so still and peaceful…

      Why not get your pilot’s license now? At least entertain the idea? Sounds like you’d be the perfect candidate to do it 🙂

      1. You know for some reason, after Dad sold it, I never thought about getting my license again. I don’t know why. Guess because I was graduating, getting ready to go to college and then you know, life happened and I never thought about it again. Would be cool, but now, living back in the town where I grew up and Dad had his balloon, I haven’t seen anymore around here.

  4. Hmm…wondering now how to work a hot air balloon into the next book… 😉

    On one trip to Denver, we camped in Chatfield State Park. The next morning, I was surprised while making coffee by hot air balloons rising up from the other side of the reservoir. I was the only one awake, so I took pictures so my fellow campers wouldn’t think I was making it up. 😀

    1. Very cool, Lynne! I imagine it was an exciting start to your morning. There’s just something about those gigantic floating behemoths that make a person feel good 🙂

  5. I always fancied doing the hot air balloon thing but never got around to it, I did go up in several hydrogen filled, converted barrage balloons, but only to parachute out of.

    Nice post, DV, and thanks for the technical jargon.

    1. Oooh–now that sounds exciting, TD. Although, I can imagine you’ve had enough excitement to last a lifetime with your background. Still, hot-air ballooning is actually quite a peaceful way to go 🙂

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