If you’re the curious type like ourselves, you’ve probably wondered how and why balloons fly? Well look no further, here are your answers.
A hot air balloon is a wonderful and unique way to travel. So, how does it work? The principle is simple; hot air rises. By heating the air inside the balloon with the burner, it becomes lighter than the cooler air on the outside, causing the balloon to float upwards. To land, the air inside is allowed to cool meaning the balloon slowly begins to descend.
There are three main types of balloons, the first is the Montgolfier type which uses fire to heat the air inside the balloon to gain lift. The second is the hybrid balloon which uses hot air in the same way, but also has a compartment of helium or hydrogen gas in the top. The final kind is a pure gas balloon which doesn’t use hot air and the altitude can only be controlled by dropping ballast or venting the gas. Hybrid and gas balloons are best used for longer distances as they require less fuel to stay airborne for extended periods of time. All of our balloons here at Virgin are the Montgolfier type.
Hot air balloons have three main components; the first is the balloon itself, also known as the ‘envelope’. The ‘envelope’ is a fabric bag made of a strong, light nylon with an opening at one end called the mouth. The biggest passenger balloon we hold is our Virgin ‘400’ balloon which towers over 120ft tall when inflated. Balloons are most commonly shaped like an ‘inverted tear drop’ but some brands do have ‘special shapes’ for advertising purposes. The second component is the basket which is connected to the balloon by strong metal cables. Our baskets have reinforced steel frames and are traditionally clad in woven wicker which is light, strong and durable. Our baskets hold between 10 and 16 passengers and are split into comfortable compartments for 3-4 people ensuring everyone has a fantastic view.
The final and perhaps most important part of the balloon is the ‘engine’ which is the burner that sits under the mouth of the balloon. The burner mixes liquid propane from pressurised gas tanks with oxygen and ignites it. The pilot pulls a small valve which fires the flame of the burner into the mouth of the balloon to heat the air inside. Our balloons have two burners; the ‘whisper burner’ is designed specially to be quieter and is used when flying over residential areas or livestock.
One of the most exciting bits about ballooning is that you’ll never take the same journey twice. As balloons cannot be steered in the normal sense, the wind your main guidance. The direction of the wind varies at different altitudes so pilots skilfully use this as a way of changing direction by burning to go up or cooling to go down so to catch different airstreams at different heights. This also means the landing point is always unknown until the pilot sees a safe open space to land, often in the countryside. The basket touches back on ground, sometimes with a bump, a skid and occasionally the basket can tip onto its side. This is all perfectly safe and normal and after a serene hour of floating in the skies, many people thoroughly enjoy the excitement of the landing!