The Pilot's Lounge #101: Balloonatics

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A quiet evening with little wind may be good for students to practice landings, but it's even better for those who like a flight in a balloon. AVweb's Rick Durden went along for a slow, relaxing, wind-directed flight.

The Pilot's Lounge

Summertime showed up at the virtual airport when no one was looking. Suddenly the Pilot's Lounge was peopled with folks wearing shorts (although some probably shouldn't do so in public); the gliders were lined up thickly, one wing down, by the grass runway waiting for the tow plane; and Bob had his 450 Stearman out adding to the shine on the already gleaming spinner. It is a great time of year: The fly-in breakfast circuit is at max-caloric, ultralights are allowing folks to enjoy the sky without spending every last cent they have and gliders are riding the afternoon thermals for hours on end. Even Old Hack shed his parka and is flying the Super Cruiser with the window open. The joy is universal.

As a recent day worked its way toward evening the thermals begin to fade away and one by one the gliders reluctantly turned final into a wind that was really only a feather-light breeze, I realized that there was something missing from this almost-perfect day for flying: There were no balloons aloft. Ordinarily, on an evening such as this, there would be a few balloons being inflated and launched on big grassy area between the runways and a dozen or so people would have wandered over to talk with the crews and watch the ascension. The departure of a balloon is such a dignified affair: The envelope is inflated and seems to come to life once the pilot fires the flame-thrower burner and causes the massive assemblage to stand up. The passengers then eagerly get in the basket and the behemoth gracefully lifts off and floats slowly away.

Arrival of The Floaters

As if to make the day perfectly symmetrical, two vans pulling small trailers came scooting down the driveway, crossed the parking lot and, slowing greatly, drove down the centerfield taxiway a short distance and turned into the grass. People spilled from the doors and went swiftly to the respective trailers from which they began unloading odd-looking devices: a bag about four feet in diameter, a wicker basket with tall uprights projecting from each corner and a large, gasoline-engine-powered fan that looked as if someone had purloined it from a swamp buggy. One of the vans had six people busily going about the process of setting up while the other had but four. More than 20 years ago I had a part-ownership in a balloon and was flying it as regularly as the weather in Kansas would allow. (With its wind, that wasn't very often. Yes, if the wind quits blowing in Kansas, people tip over.) In my experience of a generation ago, I'd learned that four people are enough to launch and recover a balloon; however, if there is any wind at all, they had better know precisely what they are doing with something that has more sail area than a racing yacht. I was lucky enough to have some extra time and very much wanted to spend some time around balloons, so I walked over to the smaller crew and asked if I might help. I got a friendly greeting and was asked if I had ever crewed. When I said I had, I was assigned a task and set about helping. The pilot pulled a pair of gloves out of a bag, handed them to me and introduced himself as Paul.

Paul looked the area over and then indicated where he wanted the basket, which we positioned. He took the burner assembly out of the van and set it within the structure formed by the uprights that protruded about six feet above each corner of the basket. Once it was in its shock-absorbing mounting, he attached the fuel lines to the propane tanks. He then walked back to the van and removed a self-contained instrument panel with some pretty basic instruments, including an altimeter and temperature gauge for the top of the envelope as well as a battery-powered comm radio and transponder. He used a lanyard arrangement to mount them on one corner of the square basket.

Once Paul seemed satisfied with the way the basket was set up, he pulled it over onto its side, pointing the burner toward where the other crewmembers were pulling the envelope -- that's the balloon part -- out of its big, vinyl, storage bag. The envelope is made of stainless steel cables laid out so that, when inflated, they form a structure, giving shape to the envelope when connected by fabric with a very high tensile strength that is also somewhat resistant to the passage of air. The cables come together at four locations, where they join toggles that are used to attach the envelope to the steel cables and aluminum uprights that are an integral part of the basket. The whole thing is amazingly strong, yet lightweight. The crew attached the base of the envelope to the basket and proceeded to walk backwards from the basket with the bag, leaving the envelope as a long, ripstop nylon tube on the ground.

Meanwhile, Paul moved the big fan around on its wheels until it was adjacent to the basket and positioned so its three-foot diameter blades could force air into the envelope. He put one of the crewmembers in charge of the fan, to hold it in place or move it as needed during what he referred to as the cold inflation of the envelope. He then asked me to help him pull the envelope out into what resembled a balloon shape. We walked outboard of each side of the fabric tube, gently pulling on the fabric itself to spread it out on the ground. Paul noted that some balloon manufacturers do not call for this to be done, feeling that its better for the fan to open out the envelope -- he just follows the procedure set out in the POH for his balloon. Yes, balloons are aircraft; they have POHs and are required to have annual inspections.

When we got to the top of the envelope, Paul picked up a very long line with a round wicker hoop about a foot in diameter on the end. He said it was the crown line and handed it to another crewmember, telling her to walk it directly away from the top of the balloon and keep it taut as the inflation started. Her job was to help keep the balloon from rolling around in the breeze during inflation. Tiny gusts or wind variations have a big effect on an envelope that is 80 feet tall and nearly that in diameter; and a moving envelope means that Paul has to work to keep the flame shot out of the burner from burning or melting the fabric on the lower portions of the envelope. The woman on the crown line was told that she should keep tension on the line, even as the balloon began to stand up when the burner was being used to heat the air inside the envelope. Once the balloon was standing upright she should bring the line to Paul and he would tie it onto one of the basket upright where he could get at it during the process of deflating the envelope after landing.

Paul led me back to the base of the envelope, to its throat, which seemed sort-of like a truncated funnel, the bottom of which was a flexible metal hoop inside a fabric covering. The hoop created an opening about 10 feet in diameter. The last crew person and I were assigned to hold each side of the throat open as the fan blew air into the envelope, and later, as Paul used the burner to heat the air in the envelope; hence the gloves. Paul briefed the guy on the fan to keep it going, even when the burner was fired up, until he signaled to shut the fan off.

Inflation

Paul looked the area over once again and spent a moment just feeling the breeze. He said that the POH puts a limit of a 7-mph wind for inflation, but he personally doesn't like to try it if the wind is over 5 mph because it takes a lot of people to try and hold the balloon in place and there's a pretty good chance he'll burn a panel or two in the envelope. That would cost a couple hundred bucks to fix and, frustratingly, it seems that there are fewer and fewer A&P maintenance technicians qualified to work on balloons any more. This evening the wind was well below 5 mph, so Paul had the fellow on the fan pull the rope start, lighting up the Briggs and Stratton and then run it up to full power.

Holding the throat open, I watched as the fabric of the envelope began to bubble and ripple with color as the air streamed in. Paul rechecked the cables attaching the envelope to the basket and began to walk around the envelope, conducting the final portion of his preflight as it began to grow and fill with air. He looked over the nylon panels and cables, working his way around to the top. There, as I watched through the open throat, I could see that the envelope was not all one piece. Instead, it had a massive opening at the top, well over 20 feet in diameter. Inside was a parachute connected to the rest of the envelope by slender lines and with a rope coming from the center down into the basket. The parachute was about a foot bigger in diameter than the opening in the top and Paul was working to put the parachute into position, blocking the opening in the top, using a series of Velcro fasteners. The parachute acted as a plug and the fasteners held it in position. The parachute would allow Paul to let hot air out of the top quickly and in measurable amounts, or to "pull the top out" on landing to let all the hot air out at the end of the flight. Paul later told me that some balloons have "rip" panels on a side to quickly let the hot air out for landing; but, once opened, many of those could not be closed again. Paul, as a long-time airline pilot, didn't like doing something on an aircraft that he couldn't undo.

Time for Heat

Once the envelope had grown to be about 2/3 full of air, it became apparent that the fan could not do any more by itself. Paul walked smartly back to the basket, gave yet another look around the area, and positioned himself inside the uprights, squatting down so that he could lift them slightly, until the lower sill of the basket rested against the back of his knees. He then took a striker device from one of the fabric pockets in the basket and, turning on a propane tank, lit the pilot light of the burner. A noticeable hissing began, which increased in pitch as he used a small valve to adjust the pilot light flame. Soon the sound nearly disappeared; however, a dog nearby began barking. Many balloon burner pilot lights apparently emit a sound that only dogs can hear, as one of the indications of a balloon flying nearby is dogs barking.

Paul then warned the two of us on the throat, aimed the burner just below dead center at the throat opening (to allow for the heat curving upwards) and squeezed the trigger. A gout of flame nearly 10 feet long leapt out of the burner, accompanied by a most satisfactory roar. As the burner heated the air, the envelope expanded upward. With the expansion the fan was able to blow more air into the envelope. Amidst the roar of the burner and the fan, I could feel the throat began to rotate from the vertical toward the horizontal as the balloon sought to stand up. When the balloon and basket reached about a 45 angle from the vertical, Paul signaled for the fan to be cut off. The operator did so and then stepped to the basket to help hold it down as the envelope began to pull upwards.

The two of us holding the throat let go and grabbed onto the basket as Paul shut off the burner. The sequence of events concluded with Paul sitting on the edge of the basket with his feet on the outside. Smoothly, he swung his feet inside and stood on the floor of the basket. He signaled for one person to get in the basket and told the rest of us to hold the basket lightly. He reached up and pulled hard on the rope that went to the parachute. Looking up, I could see it disengage from the Velcro fasteners, drop a few inches and then rotate very slightly. Once it rotated, Paul released the rope and the hot air in the envelope pushed the parachute back up to where it closed tightly, overlapping the opening at the top by a few inches all the way around. Paul saw me watching and said that doing what he just did positioned the parachute so that it sealed itself against the top of the envelope, thus hot air would not escape, other than by normal cooling and leakage through the fabric, and the parachute was free to release quickly when he needed to spill hot air for any reason.

Launch

To my surprise and delight, Paul said that the two crewmembers outside the basket were going in the chase vehicle and so there was room for one more in the basket. Would I like to go?

I had had a lot of fun flying balloons many years ago, so his invitation was very welcome. I climbed in and tried to stay out of the way, not easy in the limited space available. Paul ran the burner for several more seconds and had the handlers holding on to the basket do so with just their fingertips. After firing the burner for another half dozen seconds, he lightly bounced up and down and I found that the basket seemed to move with him a little, it was no longer firmly sitting on the ground.

In looking around the area, I saw that the other balloon was in about the same condition as ours: passengers in and the basket lightly on the ground. I realized that the pilots had erected the balloons so that they were crosswind to each other; one could launch without fear of drifting into the other. It seemed like good planning to me. Paul called out to Ron, the pilot of the other balloon, and said that he, Paul, was going to launch and he'd see Ron later.

With that Paul squeezed the trigger on the burner for a little less than 10 seconds and told the handlers that they could let go. They stepped back and a few seconds later we simply seemed to levitate. There was no sensation of movement, the ground simply started to go away. Paul gave another short burn and called to his ground crew, "When you get the fan stowed, would you also please pick up any litter you see?"

In the midst of a launch, I was a little surprised at his remark and said so. He responded, "We're a very small group of people, but we're real obvious. Most folks seem to like balloons but some have taken a dislike to us. We try very hard to create a good impression. If my crew picks up the litter for a hundred feet or so around the area we make sure we get anything we've dropped so we don't get a reputation for making a mess. If we make a good impression, we're more likely to be invited back. We've got a good rapport with this airport and I don't want to do anything to spoil it. It's also why I looked around a lot before I launched. I don't want to create a problem for any airplanes. There could be a student on a first solo who has no idea what to expect from a balloon and I could be a major distraction, so I make sure I can stay out of the traffic pattern."

It made good sense to me and I settled down to watch Paul fly. He used short bursts of the burner, maybe three or four seconds long. Each was more than loud enough to drown out conversation, sounding like a blowtorch as it shot flame into the envelope. Then there would be about 20 seconds of utter silence. We could hear the birds calling and traffic noise and, as we went along, we were able to talk with people on the ground. Paul's sense of anticipatory delay -- of how long it took for his action with the burner to heat the air and the 80-foot-tall balloon to react -- was excellent. We climbed smoothly to about 500 feet above the ground (balloons have to comply with minimum altitude rules, just like airplanes), very slowly drifting downwind. Once at altitude, Paul kept us within about 20 feet of his selected altitude and I commented on it.

Maintain Altitude

Paul said, "It took me a few hours of wildly over-controlling before I finally got a feel for how to hold altitude, or maintain a steady climb, or -- what was more challenging -- a descent. Frequent, short burns are a lot better than long ones. If we get a chance, and are away from farms and people and power lines and towers, I'll let down to a foot or so over a field and you can see that it's possible to hold your altitude amazingly accurately." (We did get the chance. He kept it an even 12 inches above the crop for nearly a half-mile.)

He excused himself and pulled a hand-held CB radio out of a pocket in the basket. He made sure it was on the channel he desired and called his chase crew. They answered immediately and Paul briefed them on his direction of flight and what he thought our ground speed was (less than 5 mph).

The view was fabulous. Being able to see in all directions was delightful and gave more of a sensation of flight than in almost any aircraft I'd ever experienced. The other thing I noticed is that my fear of heights, something I don't get at all in airplanes, gliders or helicopters, did kick in. Perhaps it was that the basket shifted with each movement of one of us. I found that I could not casually sit on the edge of the basket as did Paul and the other passenger. I stood on the floor and kept one arm around one of the uprights.

It's All Tailwind

As we drifted we had a lot of time to discuss the flight: what direction we were going, whether we ought to change altitude just a little to catch a slightly different wind to change direction a bit (balloons are a study in micrometeorology) and whether anyone saw any obstructions coming. Having many, many minutes to watch a power line or tower approach meant we could easily change altitude enough to get away from it. I noticed that anytime we crossed a power line, no matter how high we were, Paul had the burner on so that we were climbing. He said it was a habit pattern he'd established a long time ago. He would always be climbing as he approached and went over a power line. That way if the burner failed, he had time to use the second one (balloons have redundant burner systems) or, if that didn't work, he could still clear the power line because he was hot enough to get over it. He expressed puzzlement that pilots could fly balloons into power lines, even in fairly strong winds, because they have so long to see them coming and do something to avoid them. He speculated that, because it doesn't take all that much flying time to get a balloon rating from scratch, balloon pilots who haven't flown other types of aircraft are inexperienced at moving in the third dimension and get themselves in trouble because they are not used to thinking ahead in more than just flat map terms and thus may be more likely to run into something.

In the balloon we were flying, an Eagle, Paul said that if the burners both failed or he ran out of fuel or otherwise let the air in the envelope cool completely, the maximum descent rate was 800 feet per minute, something less than a parachute. (It also explained the reason the fabric plug for the top was called a parachute: It effectively functioned as one when called upon to do so.) He also said that, even in a terminal velocity descent, the throat is designed to stay open, so there isn't a risk of melting the nylon skin once you get the burners going again. Firing both burners at max volume will stop a max.-rate descent in about 30 seconds.

Keeping Pace

I saw that the chase car was staying with us pretty well. It turned out that Paul and his crew had a chart showing all of the roads in the counties around here, which is wise for a successful chase. Paul's map also had some areas shaded in red. Paul said that those were of landowners who had expressed a desire that balloons not fly over or not land on their property. He also had all of the local turkey farms noted because turkeys get unaccountably excited in the presence of a balloon and will charge around their enclosures so violently that many die. He stays quite high if the wind is going to take him over a turkey farm. He also does his best to stay high over the red areas and not land in them unless it's an emergency.

As we drifted along, the other passenger commented that he was surprised that he could not feel any wind in the basket, because there was most certainly a breeze blowing -- after all, we were moving. Paul explained that because the entire balloon moves with the air mass, there is no resultant breeze in the basket. From time to time the envelope will be in air moving at a slightly different direction or speed than the air around the basket -- in wind shear, as it were -- and then you'll get a wind in the basket. Being used to no wind, Paul said it's a very odd feeling.

The flight was lovely. A sense of calm and serenity more intense than in any other flying machine. It is no wonder that those who have flown in a balloon rave about the experience. In a world of high speed stress and turmoil, a balloon ride is the ideal way to spend an hour utterly removed from such trauma.

The wind stayed light and consistent, which allowed Paul to make an estimate of where he wanted to land. He called the chase crew on the radio and guided them to a farmhouse about a mile ahead of us. I watched the van proceed up the driveway to the farmhouse as we approached. A minute or two later the crew called back to say they'd spoken to the farmer and he didn't mind if the balloon landed in his pasture, but would it stay out of the wheat field. Paul said he would do as requested.

Approach and Landing

As we drew nearer to the field Paul had pointed out to us, the time between his burns increased and we started to descend. All three of us watched carefully for power poles; Paul explained they were the best indication of power or telephone lines because the wires between them might not be visible. Paul briefed us for landing, saying we should keep our knees slightly bent and hang onto the basket firmly. He said that the wind was pretty light, but there was still a chance the basket would tip onto its side and drag a bit before he could let all of the hot air out of the envelope. We were to stay in the basket no matter what, until he said to get out. Should one of us depart the basket early, the abrupt weight change could cause the balloon to go back up into the air, with unpleasant results, especially if Paul had pulled the parachute top out and spilled much of the hot air. Even letting go of the parachute rope and using maximum burner, he might not be able to arrest any descent that might occur.

There were no power lines by the road, so Paul crossed it as low as possible. "I don't want to go very far into the field, this basket is heavy and it's a pain to carry." As we skimmed over a barbed-wire fence, Paul pulled hard on the rope to the parachute. I would estimate we were moving at about three mph, a brisk walk. The basket started to skim the grass and then drag slightly as Paul continued to pull on the parachute line. Looking up I could see daylight all around the parachute and the envelope starting to deform. The basket skidded about five feet and stopped. It leaned over a few degrees, and then righted itself. The envelope took on the shape of an airfoil very briefly and for the first time since we'd launched, I could feel a breeze. Our crew had stepped over the fence, run the maybe 100 yards to where we were standing and grabbed onto the basket. We were firmly on the ground.

It was too soon. I did not want the flight to end.

Post Flight

Paul untied the crown line and handed it to one ground crewmember who walked directly downwind from us. Paul was still pulling on the parachute rope and the envelope was starting to lay over, downwind. The woman on the crown line pulled firmly, causing the envelope to gradually settle to the ground where she wanted it. The colorful fabric stuck up a few feet in places, displaying pockets of still warm air that seemed reluctant to accept that the flight was over.

Paul turned off the avionics, disconnected the lead to the envelope temperature indicator and handed the instrument panel and avionics unit to a crewmember who carried them to the van. We got out of the basket and watched as Paul started to do what he described as "walking out the envelope". He gathered handfuls of fabric just above the throat and pulled them together. He then put one foot on each side of the fabric, and facing away from us, began to waddle toward the top of the envelope, pulling fabric in from each side and leaving a cylinder of fabric, much as it had looked upon coming out of the bag prior to launch. By the time he reached the top, the crewmember who had gone to the van had returned with the big vinyl envelope bag. Together, we worked to stuff the cylinder of fabric into the bag, in an organized fashion, so that it would come out easily for the next flight. Paul said that he was glad the ground was dry because if the envelope got damp, he'd have to pull it out tomorrow and let it dry before repacking it to prevent mildew.

At the throat, Paul asked who wanted to do the hoop dance. One of the crewmembers volunteered and with his back to the throat, reached out until he was holding the circumference of the metal hoop at arms length. He then did some sort of maneuver that resulted in the hoop folding in on itself so that it was suddenly three connected hoops, each the diameter of the envelope bag. That collection then went into the bag and it was closed.

By this time we had a small crowd of people watching. Some had been following the balloon and were asking about it. The landowner was there with his family and one of the ground crew gave Paul a bottle of champagne. Paul called for quiet and gave a little talk in which he described the history of ballooning in France from the 1780s. Often balloonists were attacked by farmers who thought they were devils or apparitions, so the balloonists took to carrying champagne to give to the people on the ground in a form of self-protection. That began the tradition of giving a bottle of champagne to the landowner upon landing. Paul then presented a bottle to the farmer, who, surprised, thanked him.

Once that was concluded, Paul opened another bottle of champagne and poured a toast to the passenger who had never been in a balloon. The crew passed out small paper cups to everyone and, opening a few more bottles, poured some for those who cared to partake. In the next few minutes a festive atmosphere reigned and it proved to be easy to recruit several people to help carry the envelope bag and basket to the trailer, where they were secured amid great good feelings.

Once all was put away and a quick check for any litter undertaken, Paul, the other passenger and I got into the back of the van for the drive back to the airport. Paul and the crew would fuel the balloon a little later, before putting it away for the night. As we drove, I thanked Paul for the chance to ride and expressed how very much I had enjoyed it. He asked why I had quit flying balloons and I said that when I'd moved to a big city it was just too time-consuming to get out to a point where there was room to launch and fly. Plus, although the balloon wasn't all that expensive to buy and maintain and propane was pretty reasonably priced, I nearly went broke keeping the crew in beer and champagne.

See you next month.


Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.