Pilots Form Gas-Balloon Club


Hot-air balloons are common enough in the U.S., but gas balloons, which are popular in Europe, are seldom seen in U.S. skies. A small group of enthusiasts is trying to change that, with the establishment of the Aero Club of America, based in Statesville, North Carolina, which is probably the first club of its kind in the U.S. since the 1950s. Last week, the group launched their custom-built balloon from Akron, Ohio, for a flight with an instructor and two trainees. “It costs about $1,200 for the gas to fill the balloon,” Noah Forden, a pilot who helped out at the launch, told AVweb this week. “And we had about 20 people there to help with the rigging and the launch.” The appeal of this rare form of ballooning, he said, is the silence — a hot-air balloon requires the frequent use of a noisy burner — and the duration of flight, which can last up to 24 hours or more, while most hot-air balloons are limited to one or two hours at most.

Like most European gas balloons, the Aero Club’s aircraft uses hydrogen, which is much cheaper than helium. The system is designed to dissipate static electricity, and crews are trained to handle it safely. The balloon itself is only about one-third the size of a typical hot-air balloon, since the lifting capacity of the gas is greater. “We started inspecting and rigging the balloon at about 2 in the afternoon, and finished up by 7,” Forden said. The crew returned to start the inflation at about 8:30, which took about an hour and a half, then they launched at 4 a.m. “They flew for almost five hours and traveled 62 miles,” Forden said. “It’s an amazing amount of work. But it was so much fun. I hope to help out again on a flight from North Carolina in the fall.”

See photos here.