Hot air balloons float because hot air rises and fills an envelope designed to contain the hot air. Once the envelope is full enough, the basket and its contents will be lifted. When it is time to land, the balloon is allowed to cool at the appropriate levels to provide for a gentle descent. Sounds simple enough, but it is this simplicity that places the greatest demands on the pilot. Unlike the highly technical machinery that keeps our modern aircrafts flying, the sophisticated equipment that keeps these works of art in the air is the pilot’s brain. As Wayne Bullock, pilot of the Virginia State Airplane and enthusiastic balloon pilot for over 34 years, points out, “It is this grassroots challenge of anticipating what is going to happen next with the weather, winds, geography, physics of heating and cooling the balloon, etc., that forces a balloon pilot to stay one step ahead. There is no autopilot for these guys.
The same simplicity, tranquility, and “up close and personal” nature of a balloon flight also makes it weather dependent. Fog, rain and wind speed will keep a balloon grounded. Weather conditions also affect how high or low a balloon can fly. If a particular flight happens to be canceled, typically an alternate flight will be scheduled or a refund offered.
Prime balloon season is mid-May through mid-October with it peaking during fall foliage season. The optimal time for flying is within an hour of sunrise, for people who prefer to greet the day with a peaceful excursion, or during the two hours before sunset, for those preferring to unwind after a long day. These times are selected not only because they are the most picturesque, but also because these are the calmest times of the day with very little chance of updrafts.
The amount of passengers a balloon can carry is weight dependent. Typically a balloon will hold from 4 – 8 passengers. Flight costs average from $225 - $300 per person. Many offer discounted rates for off season and week-day flights. Private rides for engagements, weddings and other special events can also be arranged. Most companies offer gift certificates. Reservations are required several weeks in advance in most cases, especially for prime fall foliage weekends.
As safety is foremost on any ride, the journey will begin with a pre-flight briefing which will provide passengers with safety instruction, as well as information on how to best enjoy the ride. The entire experience will last approximately 3 hours, with approximately 30 - 45 minutes used for set-up and inflation, 50 – 60 minute ride, and 30- 45 minutes for landing, pack-up, and post- flight Champagne or apple cider toast upon return.
To best enjoy the experience, riders are encouraged to bring cameras and binoculars (make sure you have a strap or some means to secure them safely). Part of the mystique of the balloon ride is the fact that a balloon will go wherever the wind will take it. Therefore, you never quite know where you will land. Rest assured the pilots are very familiar with the areas over which they fly and have several safe landing options from which to choose. In addition, pilots are constantly in contact with their ground crew, following in a vehicle to bring balloon and passengers safely back to their launch point.
You don’t even have to worry about angry farmers racing out with pitchforks. The pilots have worked out agreements with land owners far in advance and always offer the traditional bottle of Champagne or cider as a way of saying thanks. The only thing you have to worry about as a passenger is wearing the proper footwear. A pilot is very good at what he does, however, it may be a bit hard to spot a cow patty from several hundred feet. Personally, I would prefer walking in some sort of soft-soled walking shoes rather than in open-toed sandals or high heels through a muddy (or worse) pasture back to the ground vehicle, no matter how short the distance.
For those apprehensive of flying, rest assured that a balloon flight is a different kind of experience. Bob Thomas, owner of the second oldest balloon company in the US, states that passengers usually experience no motion sickness given the pace of the balloon and the fact that you are moving with the prevailing winds. In fact, he states that he does not like looking down from tall buildings but has never had any fear riding in a balloon because he feels secure in the basket. It has been his experience that if a person is not afraid of flying in an airplane then they will have no problem riding in a balloon.