It may be surprising, but most people in this sport are not pilots. In fact, less than 25 % of the people are active pilots. In Finland we have about 60 pilots and more than 200 balloonists. When you know more about the sport, the reasons become understandable.
To launch our average 77 balloon requires four people. When the envelope is laid out on the ground two members of the crew hold the mouth of the balloon open while the pilot operates the burner. The fourth person, called the Crown Crew, holds a rope attached to the top of the balloon to prevent the envelope from moving into the vertical position too quickly.
When the balloon lifts off, the pilot and one or two members of the ground crew will fly with it while the remainder will follow in the retrieve (sometimes called chase) vehicle.
You won't often see a balloon airborne at lunch time. Why? Because the heat of the sun will have warmed the ground, the ground in turn will have warmed the adjacent air, and nature will have produced its own massive and invisible hot-air balloon (invisible until these thermals, as they are known, rise above condensation level and turn into puffy cotton wool cumulus clouds).
It's very uncomfortable to be caught in a thermal when flying in a balloon because you can't stop your ascent and may reach an altitude of thousands of feet.
Nature also abhors a vacuum, so where the thermal breaks away from the ground local breezes spring-up as surrounding air moves in to equalise the pressure. The result is unpredictable takeoff and landing conditions. Occasionally weak winter sun conditions do allow all-day flying but as a rule balloons prefer the gentler airs of early morning and evening, before the thermals start or after the have finished for the day.
If you think about it a balloon is very similar to a yacht, the envelope acting in the manner of a sail without a mast. With a breeze behind it the envelope can exert a force of several tons and, while sophisticated devices are available to tether the craft to a heavy vehicle or handy tree, it is obviously more sensible not to try and fly when the wind is too strong.
A belt of trees can often be found that will shelter the balloon from the wind during the inflation and takeoff phase, but good pilots remember what goes up must come down - and there may not be any shelter to drop behind when the balloon lands.
Rain is also best avoided. Moisture adds significant weight to the envelope in flight while a balloon packed away wet may suffer from mould and mildew.
Hot-air balloons work on the very simple principle that warm air rises. It rises because heating makes it less dense, i.e. lighter, than surrounding air. If enough warm air is trapped in a lightweight bag then the bag will continue to rise until the temperature of the air inside and outside the bag become roughly equivalent. When it cools it will start a gentle descent.
Prove this yourself by gluing very lightweight tissue paper into a balloon shape. You can heat the air inside by warming it with a small propane blow torch through a hole in the base of the balloon. The size of your balloon will dictate how high it will rise, but take great care because tissue paper is extremely flammable.
Fortunately ripstop nylon, the fabric from which hot-air balloons are built, will not sustain a flame. As the name suggests the material is specially woven with criss-cross reinforcement threads to help prevent tearing. Lightweight and colourful, the fabric can withstand temperatures in excess of 120 deg. C - well above the boiling point of water.
The nylon is cut into panels which are sewn into long strips of fabric called gores. Each panel edge is folded back on itself, interleaved with the next folded edge, and then all four thicknesses of fabric are sewn through twice by machine using a lock-stitch. Tailors call this a French felled seam and it's very strong.
The gores are attached to heavy-duty nylon tapes that pass around the balloon. It's these tapes, rather than the ripstop nylon panels, that carry the loads suspended beneath the air bag, or envelope to use the correct ballooning nomenclature.
At this stage of construction the envelope has large holes top and bottom. The top hole is a valve to vent hot air rapidly when the pilot wants to descend or land. It is plugged by a movable fabric construction that resembles a parachute, and that's the term used to describe it .
As mentioned earlier the hole at the base of the envelope is there to allow the flame from a burner to heat the air without damaging the fabric. Around the hole, or mouth as it is generally known, are panels made from fire-resistant Nomex - the material used in overalls for racing drivers.
Stainless steel flying wires connect the envelope to a frame within which the burner sits on gimbals that allow it to be moved to compensate for any slight deflection of the flame caused by the wind. The flame itself appears only when operation of the blast valve permits a mixture of vaporised and liquid propane to be ignited by a pilot light.
To avoid upsetting animals when flying over the countryside most balloon burners also incorporate a 'Whisper' system which, while being a good deal louder than a whisper, is considerably quieter than the main burner.
More strong stainless steel wires run down from the burner frame to the basket, around and underneath it, then back up to the opposite corners of the burner frame to complete a continuous sling. Inside this sling (in fact there are four of them) sits the basket, woven by craftsmen from cane and willow, a padded edge around the top of suede or leather being one of its few concessions to creature comfort. Other materials, including plastics and aluminium, have been tried as substitutes for basket wicker but they lacked the resilience - and charm - of the traditional material.
Fuel cylinders, tanks of liquid propane gas, normally stand in each corner of the basket, leaving adequate but not generous room for the pilot and passengers. Padded covers surround the cylinders - just in case of a bumpy landing - while rubber- encased armoured pipes carry the fuel up to the burner, which is supported above the basket on flexible nylon rods.
Those who think standing in a laundry basket under a bag of hot air at 3,000 feet isn't anything to worry about can skip this chapter. Those who aren't convinced after reading the next few paragraphs that they have a reasonable chance of returning safely to their loved ones following such a flight can skip all the rest!
Statistics suggest the pilot and passengers in a balloon are at no greater risk than the retrieve crew following in a vehicle below. From the safety point of view a balloon flight is equivalent to travelling on an airliner operated by one of the world's major carriers. Perhaps not surprisingly many people who don't like the claustrophobia of an airliner feel quite at home in the basket of a balloon.
And as in an airliner we don't wear parachutes. Neither do we wear seat belts (there usually aren't seats, anyway).
Unlike an airliner there are no complicated electronics to go wrong. In fact there is remarkably little to fail in a balloon and all essential systems are duplicated.
'Can a hot-air balloon go pop, like a child's toy?'
No. It's impossible. In fact the bag containing the hot-air is constructed with a hole larger than a house door at the base so a pin stuck into it, or even a peck from an unfriendly bird, isn't going to cause problems.
Of course fuel is carried in the basket and the burner that heats the air has a powerful flame, but the next chapter - it explains how a balloon works - will answer any fears you may have concerning the integrity of the onboard equipment.
It takes most trainee pilots between three and twelve months to reach a standard where they can be trusted to fly themselves and their passengers in safety (that period can be reduced to as little as a month given self discipline, the constant availability of a balloon, crew and instructor plus some luck with the weather).
The course currently requires a minimum of 16 hours flying instruction, a check flight with a CAA appointed examiner and a solo flight. The minimum age to qualify is 17.
Most people find their first solo flight a worrying, yet exhilarating, experience and one which is never forgotten. A bottle of champagne is required for the traditional celebration after landing.
And ballooning is a sport in which women can do just as well as men because a pilot needs skill and concentration, not brute strength (though it helps if there are a few muscles around during the unpacking and repacking stages).
If the holder of a Private Pilot's Licence wants to fly balloons for hire or reward he will later be able to gain a Commercial Pilot's Licence.
The number of people a balloon can carry depends on its size. At Cameron Balloons we build tiny one-man craft, some of which have a seat instead of a basket, up to monsters that have lifted 50 passengers. We generally say that a particular balloon will carry X people. More accurately we should say a balloon will carry so much weight at such and such a height and such and such an air temperature.
Big balloons tend to be used by commercial operators to carry fare paying passengers while more usual sizes will carry a large advertisement on the envelope plus the pilot and a couple of friends in the basket. More about these commercial considerations later.
Tastes change, but generally speaking the most popular size of balloon is described as a '77'. That's because the envelope holds 77,000 cubic feet (2190 cubic metres) of air. The 77 can often carry four people (depending on their weight!) which makes it ideal for family, club or syndicate use. In particularly warm climatic conditions, especially where the take off site is situated well above sea level, you might need an 84 or a 90 to carry four people. So the size of balloon you choose is dependent on how many people you want to fly, the air temperature and the location.
If, for the sake of argument, we disregard the activities of those misguided chaps who long ago coated themselves with feathers, jumped off the nearest cliff, and went down in panic rather than in history, then man's first genuine flight was in a hot-air balloon.
The date was the 21st of November, 1783. The place was Paris. And the two men who made aeronautical history were the Marquis D'Ariandes and Pilatre de Rozier.
Flying that first balloon, built by the Montgolfier brothers, required constant stoking of a brazier to maintain an adequate flow of heated air into the huge bag of linen-paper above the heads of the aeronauts. It is said that as the flight over Paris progressed the Marquis paused in his stoking to admire the River Seine beneath them, at which point his colleague admonished: 'If you look at the river in that fashion you will be likely to bathe in it soon. Some fire, my dear friend, some fire!'
Fame was to be short-lived for the hot-air balloon.
Only 11 days after that historic first flight a balloon was demonstrated that used hydrogen gas as its lifting medium. This was a much simpler device and for two centuries the hot-air balloon drifted into obscurity. It was resurrected in the late 1950's when the US Government built a hot-air balloon as part of a research project. Modern man-made fabrics and bottled liquid petroleum gas were more practical and longer lasting than the materials used to construct the bag and produce the heat in the Montgoifier original. The hot-air balloon was reborn, and today outnumbers its hydrogen (and helium) gas-filled cousins by 500 to 1.