The Envelope, Please
Working for AVweb has its ups and downs. A lot of the "downs" come twice a week, as deadlines approach. The "ups" are more frequent, thankfully, and often involve doing new things and meeting new people. Recently, AVweb's Executive Editor Jeb Burnside took up a reader on a "dare" of sorts, to take a ride in a hot-air balloon. The sincere offer was made in the aftermath of AVweb's coverage of last year's attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a lighter-than-air craft. Under threat of being forced to help Editor-In-Chief Mike Busch with the next annual inspection of his T310, Jeb recently took that ride. He's back and has mostly recovered — here's his report.
First, a Bit of Explanation
This article has its roots in AVweb's news coverage of the last decade's seemingly innumerable and interminable attempts to circumnavigate the globe in balloons, err, lighter-than-air craft. After watching countless attempts come a-cropper at various stages, AVweb's staff grew tired of all the attention being paid to the attempts. Our pique, umm, peaked when Betrand Piccard and Brian Jones finally succeeded with an around-the-world flight in March 1999, after roughly two weeks aloft. Indeed, we were thankful that these flights — many think of them as stunts — were seemingly over with. So thankful, in fact, that AVweb's Liz Swaine wrote in that week's AVflash:
"We're thrilled because we are simply sick to death of all the attempts. Granted, it was a hoot when one team bailed out over west Texas and snagged their hineys on cactus barbs but, all in all, balloon contests are about like a game of cricket, or watching paint dry."
That comment was read by seemingly thousands of balloonists. And they wrote us some email. A lot of email. Some of it is not appropriate to repeat in a family publication. But one letter stood out from the rest. It was a thoughtful note from reader Joyce Paisley, an elementary-school teacher and mother of two daughters living in Burlington, N.C. (I discovered later that it might not have been so thoughtful if an unavoidable "cooling-off" period hadn't intervened — maybe there should be a seven-day waiting period for AVweb's AVmail?) While just as distressed as others who wrote to defend ballooning, Joyce's more genteel note had a punchline: "I certainly think that ballooning can only be really appreciated first-hand," and included an offer to take an AVweb staffer for a ride in her hot-air balloon during an upcoming rally. Despite our inbred reluctance to go aloft in anything without either an engine or a pair of wings — preferably a working complement of both — we managed to convince Executive Editor Jeb Burnside that his job depended on getting there this year. He's back and has mostly recovered — here's his report.
There are a lot of fun and not-so-fun things I've done in an aircraft and a lot of different types I've flown. Most of them had wings — either fixed or rotary — and all but a handful had engines. I had never, however, been aloft in nor spent any kind of quality time near a hot-air balloon. Lately, I've been very content to drone around behind the TCM IO-520 in my Debonair. So when Joyce Paisley challenged AVweb to supply a warm body she could subject to a demonstration ride in a hot-air balloon, I didn't exactly jump at the chance. Although it took us both more than a year for our schedules to fall into place, I finally dredged up the courage, checked to see that my life insurance was paid up, and made arrangements to fly into Burlington, N.C., for the local hospice's annual Balloon Fest.
Soon after arriving on a hot, humid Friday afternoon, I had the pleasure to finally meet Joyce Paisley, the person into whose hands I would soon, it was hoped, place my trust as a balloon pilot. She and her husband John (yes, they are both commercial balloon pilots — a two-balloon family) compete each year in the Burlington Balloon Fest and — together and separately — in other balloon gatherings and events. Ballooning is such a major part of their lives, in fact, that they have two complete chase rigs — identical Chevy Suburbans — and their daughter crews for them, among other people. More on chase crews in a moment.
As I soon learned, however, it wasn't looking good for that afternoon's flying. A rather stiff breeze had kicked up — maybe 10 knots' worth — and the assembled balloonists, their crews and scheduled passengers were in "hurry-up-and-wait" mode, hoping that, as the day wore on and early evening came upon us, the winds would abate and the temperatures would fall.
But I was confused. Ten knots? "So what," I thought to myself. "Anyone can fly in only 10 knots of wind, right?" Not so when dealing with a hot-air balloon, the very essence of which is to put one's self at the mercy of the wind. Similarly, the ambient temperature didn't bode well. Just as any aircraft performs better in cooler weather, balloons are seemingly more susceptible to poor performance in "high and hot" conditions. In addition to the density altitude penalty all aircraft suffer in hot conditions, hot-air balloons can fly only because of the difference in temperature between the ambient air and the air in the envelope. Hot air rises, cool air descends, and airmasses of the same temperature don't do much at all. In this instance, the reduced temperature difference between ambient air and envelope air (the balloon envelopes have temperature limits, too, just like a piston or a turbine engine) combine to limit lift.
Thus, the combination of a stiff breeze and high temperatures makes ballooning more of a challenge than anyone might like. Good "balloon" weather, it wasn't. Nevertheless, pilots are eternal optimists and the decision was made to wait until around 6:15 p.m. to see what the weather would do. So, after the requisite weather, safety, procedures and local knowledge briefing, the pilots, chase crews and hangers-on for some 70-odd balloonists scattered around the airport, looking for a good spot from which to launch. And wait.
But, the delay afforded me a great opportunity to ask a bunch of dumb questions about ballooning, to learn more about balloonists' passion for the sport, and to more closely inspect this mysterious conveyance.
Up Close and Personal
The first thing that struck me about hot-air balloons was their very simple nature. There's a basket (a real basket, made from wicker or rattan) which holds the pilot and passengers, the burners and their controls and the envelope itself.
The Basket ...
Wicker. Isn't that the stuff they make into lightweight furniture at beach houses? Isn't it a bit flimsy after Uncle John flops down into it a few hundred times? Isn't it always shedding small bits and pieces? Doesn't it get mildewed? Isn't it home to legions of termites?
Well ... the wicker in your beach house is not the same wicker — or rattan, in some models — as a balloon's basket. For one, the basket's wicker is more substantial, with a thicker diameter and a simpler design and weave, for strength. Secondly, it's closely inspected each year — unlike the furniture in your beach house — and repaired as necessary. Thirdly, it flexes much more than aluminum or fiberglass, allowing the basket to bend to accommodate landing loads while still being light enough to load and unload from a trailer or truck. Ultimately, it's an ideal material for a balloon basket — light, strong and easily repaired. A plywood floor is fitted and baskets are usually equipped with handles along the bottom for easier ground handling. A step is usually cut into one side for the pilot and passengers to use when climbing in and out, plus there is lots of padding around the poles connecting the basket to the envelope and around the top of the basket itself.
Still, the basket can get a bit cramped. Joyce's basket looked to have roughly the same square footage as a moderately sized bathtub. Into that bathtub go two large propane tanks, the instrumentation, control lines (sorry, no yokes or sticks), paraphernalia like a cooler with ice, water and soft drinks and, of course, the rest of the balloon's payload — me, for instance. There are no seats — at least in Joyce's balloon, so this would be similar to riding the subway during rush hour, though less cramped.
... Instruments, Burners and Controls ...
A sophisticated pressurized piston twin this isn't. The controls — and control panel — are extremely simple in a hot-air balloon, simpler even than the no-radio Piper Cub in which you may have first soloed. Instrumentation consists of an altimeter, a variometer (to determine rates of climb and descent) and a sensor to report the envelope's temperature. Controls basically consist of two lines to vents in the envelope, one at the top to release hot air and thereby control the descent rate, and another in the side of the balloon which is used to turn the balloon about its vertical axis. A drop line or two is also available, trailing below the basket, for ground crew to grab onto and help secure the balloon during landing, if they arrive in time.
The principal control, however, is the burner valve. Analogous to a powered aircraft's throttle, the burner valve is tied into a pair — in Joyce's balloon — of mean-looking propane burners which are connected through the valves to two 10-gallon propane tanks. Similar in operation to the burner in the bottom of the gas barbecue grill found in your backyard, these suckers are but distant cousins, thrice removed, to your grill. Instead of making some bits of ground beef sizzle and turn dark, they shoot a yellow-white flame several feet up from the top of the basket into the envelope. That flame — maybe six-to-eight feet in length (hey, I didn't actually get up on top of the basket to measure it...) — is the sole means of creating new lift for the balloon — adding power, if you will — short of finding natural lift from weather and mountains or other geographic features. And the burners are loud — I have to confess that the first few times I heard someone use theirs, I jumped.
... the Envelope ...
The most readily identified part of the balloon is its envelope, that huge fabric bag perched atop the basket. While envelopes come in different sizes, shapes and colorful designs, they all have a few things in common. One, they are all made from a lightweight, durable material, some with skirts of Nomex or another heat-resistant fabric. Two, they are constructed in a series of panels, both to simplify construction and to incorporate some measure of a fail-safe design — if one panel gets ripped, the rip stops at the panel's edge; it can't continue along the circumference of the envelope. The third thing they have in common is that they are all different. As some of the images on this page demonstrate, they all incorporate different colors and designs and even shapes. Since balloons often spend a lot time floating where people can see them, they also often will carry a sponsor's logo or advertisement.
... and the People
That covers the mechanical stuff, but what about the people involved in this form of aviation? What about Joyce, into whose hands I would shortly place myself? First, I came away from my brief exposure to ballooning quite pleased and confident in the future of general aviation. All of the people I met had two traits in common: They were always friendly and deeply passionate about ballooning and aviation in general. Unlike some of what I'll gently label the "old-timers" in general aviation, there was none of the "you've got to pay your dues in this activity before I'll stoop to your level" mentality still so prevalent in FBOs and flight schools across the U.S. All welcomed me with enthusiasm and excitement at the prospect of sharing their joy of ballooning with someone new. The same was true of Joyce, her husband and their ground crews.
And that's a good thing, because it takes a small army to set up, launch and retrieve a hot-air balloon. Joyce's crew numbered three, all of whom were very experienced at the task of unpacking and assembling the balloon's various components from the Suburban, helping inflate the envelope, assisting in the launch, chasing the balloon across the countryside — sometimes monitoring via two-way radio — and then disassembling the whole thing and packing it away at the end of the flight, sometimes many miles from its launching point. Indeed, the chase crew is as integral a part of flying a hot-air balloon as the envelope or the burners, because unless you are both a very good pilot and very lucky, you rarely return to earth at the place you left it.
In the Belly of the Beast
The End of One Day
To make a long story short, we didn't fly that first day. Between the heat and the wind, Joyce felt that the conditions were marginal for takeoff and landing, the two most critical phases of flight in any aircraft. Since a hot-air balloon is at the mercy of the winds (after all, they call them lighter-than-air craft, don't they?) one shouldn't launch one in winds stronger than the speed at which one wishes to leave or return to earth. As we've explored, balloons don't have landing gear and, while I was amazed at their maneuverability and a skilled pilot's ability to put one where he or she wanted it, there are times when it's right to go fly any aircraft and times when it's not. This was one of the latter. Many others at the Burlington rally were feeling the same way that day, since approximately half of the assembled craft stayed on the ground that evening, with only the more experienced and/or pressured pilots bothering to launch. They all got off okay, despite a couple of envelope bumps as the wind shifted with altitude, and began drifting downwind. Reportedly, all later returned to earth without problem. Instead, we settled in to a banquet dinner in a nearby hangar and made plans to reassemble at the airport the next morning at 5:30 (gulp!) for the best shot at getting airborne.
... and Beginning of Another
Sure enough, the next day was a much better choice, with almost no movement to the already-warm, muggy air. The morning's pilot briefing was much more upbeat, with favorable reports on the winds. Soon, the briefing was concluded and some 70-odd sets of pilots, passengers and crew made for their chase vehicles and a barely-restrained, polite race for the airport exits. In fact, this morning's flight was to begin off-airport with the goal of flying back over the airport and attempt to drop a weighted (with environmentally-sound birdseed) streamer marked with the balloon's N-number or the pilot's name. Yes, just as with any other aircraft in the U.S., hot-air balloons are required to display an N-number.
Local pilots split off into small groups as the race to find the perfect launch site — upwind, clear of wires, towers and other obstructions, plus on land the owners of which allow balloon launches — began in earnest. The Burlington event is an annual one and the local citizenry have become very familiar with the site of small armies racing around with trucks and trailers of all sizes, looking for places from which to launch and land balloons. Still, many landowners have put out the word that they do not wish their land to be used by balloonists — for whatever reason — and the various crews have these locations blocked off on their charts.
At this point, a word or two about charts and similar equipment is appropriate. Given the speed at which balloons travel across the ground and the limited distance they typically travel (Joyce's 20 gallons of propane is good for maybe 2.5 hours of flying time, less when it's hot — as it is already becoming today — and more heat more constantly applied to the envelope is needed to establish and maintain a safe altitude) standard aviation charts are next to useless. A sectional covers way too much territory and its scale is too large to be useful — a WAC is out of the question. Similarly useless are instrument charts or even an airport directory. Sometimes, a terminal area chart can be used effectively, but rarely do balloons operate in or near the airspace covered by such a chart — there is no electrical system to power a transponder or communications radio. What's the solution? A basic road map serves very well, thank you. On local flights like this, a chart is a luxury, though, especially when the pilot has flown over the area for years. A local, maybe county, road map would serve quite nicely.
Similarly, balloonists are not a good market for the usual pilot-oriented gadgets. Few balloonists bother with GPS (perhaps the groundspeed readout is too depressing?), headsets are certainly not necessary and things like flashlights, flight computers, fancy checklists and the like are just dead weight. Leave 'em on the ground. Instead, the only equipment necessary is the occasional battery-powered CB radio for communicating with the chase crew, a cooler or thermos with something to drink in it and a pair of heavy-duty work gloves for the pilot (the burner valves can get quite hot). Oh, yeah. Don't forget your camera.
After leaving the airport and driving around the nearby neighborhoods, a suitable location — a grassy field of less than two acres — was identified as a launch point. In this case, that meant it was open enough to ensure safety and was the proper direction and distance from our planned destination — the airport we had just left — to make the morning's goal attainable.
Soon, five large vehicles had driven onto the small field and began disgorging baskets, envelopes and people. Right away, envelopes were laid out across the grass, envelope-to-basket connections were made and the still, muggy morning air was filled with the sounds of small engines turning portable fans, used to pre-inflate the envelopes. The first crews to arrive soon had a balloon assembled and on its side, as the fans worked to blow air into the envelopes. Crewmembers worked feverishly to lay out other envelopes, check the control lines for proper routing and any tangles, look at any wiring for heat sensors, ensure that the basket-to-balloon connections were solid and load any necessary equipment into the basket.
Then, the real fun began — the burners started popping off and the envelopes began rising into the morning sky. Soon, both envelope and basket were upright and it was time to climb aboard.
The balloon was already upright and seemingly quivering with the anticipation of flight, so after I climbed aboard and a couple more blasts from the burners, we were aloft. Indeed, the transition from ground-borne to airborne was hard to identify. There is no acceleration to speak of when taking off in a balloon — no ground roll, no sudden leap upward as with a helicopter. One moment we were firmly on the ground; the next moment the people and things around us were below us and growing slightly smaller. Smooth, effortless and almost magical would best describe the sensation — or lack of sensation — involved with a balloon takeoff.
Indeed, at first I didn't think much of the actual takeoff, until we began to rise above the trees, houses and other balloons still on the ground. Very quickly, though, two things struck me: One, we were indeed aloft, gently climbing and beginning to make progress over the ground toward the nearby airport. Second was the almost complete lack of any sensation to prove that we were aloft in an aircraft. When I think of an "aircraft," I think of a contrivance with at least one noisy engine or, at a minimum, two wings sticking out — rotary or fixed — with a set of controls and a bunch of dials. None of that here — only the soft quiet of a summer morning, periodically interrupted as Joyce blasted some more burnt propane into the envelope above us, and punctuated by the sights of moving vehicles and upturned faces below us as Burlington, N.C., began to awaken on this Saturday.
Back inside the basket, both pilot and passenger were all smiles as we celebrated our successful departure from earth and looked around at the countryside, dotted here and there with similarly-fortunate balloon occupants. Although I will admit to the need to acclimate myself to my surroundings (the basket's sides aren't very high and I'm a little tall — I wouldn't want to inadvertently step outside...) the momentary need was just that — momentary.
Hey, this is neat!
With a gleam in her eye and a slight edge in her voice, Joyce asked the question she'd been waiting to ask for more than a year: "Well, is it about as interesting as watching paint dry?" "Hardly," I meekly answered.
Soon, we had climbed several hundred feet and were moving across the ground at a brisk pace. Joyce had located the airport off in the distance, scanned for other balloon traffic and had settled in to try to navigate toward the airport and the big "X" on the ground that served as the target for the banner we were planning to drop. Alas, the weather gods were not working in our favor: Despite several "tests" of the winds from the surface up to a few thousand feet using a small helium-filled balloon (a "pie ball") and a theodolite (a tracking device used to plot the wind velocity at various altitudes), Joyce was having difficulty finding the right altitude to catch a wind current that would allow us to drift over the airport. Of course, that is the only way to steer one of these things — find an altitude at which the wind is blowing in the direction you want to go. Sometimes, it's easy. This morning, it wasn't.
The wind was not cooperating at all. Between the time the various pie balls were launched and the time we launched ourselves, the wind had shifted to the extent that the closest we came to the target — located in the middle of the airport — was along the airport boundary, well to the north.
Oh well, time to sit back and enjoy the view. And it was nice! There are no windows to obstruct. You can stick your hand out over the basket side and do a bunch of other stuff one would never really consider in most powered aircraft, or even sailplanes. For the most part, also, there's no breeze either, since the balloon and its occupants are moving along in the same airmass and at the same speed as the wind. That's not to say that there isn't a breeze, just that what breeze is present is a very slight one, noticeable only when the wind shifts and before it has a chance to change the direction and momentum of the balloon's mass.
Soon — too soon — it became time to look for a landing area. That other balloonists were having the same thought was confirmed as we watched several begin maneuvering for a landing, trying to pick a good spot free from tall trees, wires, belligerent animals and shotgun-wielding landowners. A slight descent brought us down closer to the surface where we heard dogs barking as they tried to warn their masters of this other-worldly apparition, spitting flame and hissing noises, as it descended down upon them.
But the closer we got to the surface, the stronger the wind became. Joyce was having a problem finding a landing area smooth enough for a landing, long enough to permit an approach and lacking tall trees or power lines. Other balloons in the area were having similar problems, some bobbing up and down like corks as they attempted a descent to a landing, then though better of it and climbed back up. Some balloons, mostly to the south of us, were having a better time of it — the topography and the winds were cooperating only several hundred yards away, allowing them to safely alight in open areas. But not where we were.
After three or four "look-sees" at probable landing areas — including a couple of occasions where we were forced to drag the basket through tree tops (another new experience for a powered aircraft pilot...), Joyce finally spotted an open area behind some houses and between some trees. At least one other balloon had spotted the same area and was maneuvering for a landing uphill from us. Down we went again, this time dragging the basket through more tree tops, until they were cleared. The next line of trees was looming ahead of us, but Joyce apparently opened the vent, allowing hot air to escape and making us heavier.
"Hang on to something," she urged. Needing no further encouragement, I braced myself in the basket and wrapped an arm around the closest pole as we headed for terra firma. BUMP. We had landed. Joyce had earlier admonished me not to get out of the balloon when we landed. That was good advice since just as I got out of my mouth, "Well, that wasn't so bad...", the basket picked up a few inches, tipped sideways and dragged itself a few more feet, finally coming to rest once and for all. Hmmph. Just like one of my normal airplane landings.
What had happened was something I'll call a "pendulum effect." Although the basket had come to earth and the envelope had slackened, the wind wasn't finished with us. While the basket we were in was more or less stationary on the ground, the envelope was moving with the wind far above our heads. Soon the slack would be taken up. When that happened, we felt it in the basket as that final few feet of travel. Joyce, knowing what the wind was doing to the envelope, was prepared for it but I wasn't, save for her warning to stay in the basket.
We had landed in a family's backyard, at the bottom of a hill. At the top of the hill were two more balloons that had launched at about the same time we had. Oh yes, there was also a house and many more trees about. Soon, the landowner came down to greet us, smiling (which is always a relief to a just-landed balloonist). Shortly thereafter, Joyce's chase team arrived (they had been in the area the whole time, but the hill and the surrounding trees combined to prevent them from spotting the envelope, so they weren't sure where we were), followed by her husband and his team. A few minutes later the balloon had been detached from the basket and stowed, the basket had been secured and loaded aboard the Suburban and we were ready to go. The entire evolution from assembled balloon to stowed balloon had taken maybe ten minutes, about the same amount of time it takes me to tie down my plane, unload it, put the cabin cover on, install the cowling plugs and pitot cover and do a quick postflight walkaround.
Soon we were headed back to the airport to refuel the propane tanks, a very delicate affair with its own set of rules and strict limits on the number of people allowed in the filling area. Not bad, I thought to myself. A very enjoyable way to spend a Saturday morning. But there was one more event planned.
A Brief Ceremony
Joyce and John take their ballooning very seriously. In addition to the rally at Burlington, they both participate in other events throughout the country, including the well-known one at Albuquerque, N.M. So seriously, in fact, that they had prepared a brief ceremony commemorating my flight and that of two others aboard John's balloon that morning. The ceremony harks back to the very first airmen — no, not the Wright Brothers, but the Montgolfier Brothers — who flew the first hot air balloons over France in 1783. Back then, they didn't have propane, but used huge wood and charcoal fires to heat the air. Those fires gave off a lot of light and the image of these huge airborne monsters gliding over the countryside belching smoke, sparks and fire was enough to frighten even the most sedate townspeople. As a result, the chase crews back then were armed with a commodity it was hoped would make the by-then-agitated citizenry a bit more docile — French champagne.
While champagne was not on the menu that morning — I still had to fly home later — some non-alcoholic grape juice took its place, allowing those who have to greet those who just did into the fraternity of balloonists. All in all, it was a gracious, appropriate way to commemorate one's first balloon ride. And, it sure beats clipping off a shirttail.
Cricket and Paint?
Is ballooning about as exciting as watching a game of cricket or watching paint dry? Not by a long shot. It's far more than that. Instead, it's a graceful, majestic, peaceful way to see the countryside, to share the joy of flying from only a few hundred feet above the ground, watching and listening as the dogs bark and the birds circle. It's leisurely, relatively inexpensive when compared to other ways we humans regularly get aloft and very rewarding.
Thanks, Joyce for putting up with this power pilot and showing him another way to fly. I owe you.