While it is easy to focus on the pilots and the passengers in hot air balloons it is worth remembering the other important people who play a vital role in getting the balloon into the air. Guest blogger and former Virgin Balloon Flights ground crew Jess Baughan explains in part one of ‘A Crews View’.
The balloon crew’s job starts as soon as the previous flight has finished with simple things like refuelling the balloon (with most balloons carrying 400 litres of LPG this can take a while), refuelling the inflation fans with petrol, replenishing champagne supplies (or soft drinks) and making sure that the balloon and everything associated with it (trailer & tow vehicle etc) are ready for the next flight.
What happens next is the same for crew and passengers alike, we phone the flight line to find out whether the flight is going ahead and liaise with the pilot to decide what time to set the alarm clock for. In general the crew will start around three hours before the flight so for a 6am flight this means a 3am start.
The first job is to get to the launch site which in itself can represent anything up to two hours of travelling, once on the launch site the crew join up with the pilot, most of the time the pilot will arrive separately to the crew due to very strict restrictions on working hours for the pilots.
Between the pilot and crew a decision will be made on where to set the balloon up and which direction it should face, A lot of the time this decision is based on the way a small helium balloon flies when released from the launch site (weather & wind forecasts are good but not as good as releasing a small balloon and watching what the wind does to it.)
While all this is going on the crew are also meeting and greeting passengers and checking passenger names & vouchers against the flight manifest.
Once the decision has been made about where the balloon is to launch from, the basket is taken off the trailer and laid on its side while the envelope (that’s the balloon part) is laid out in a straight line. It is then attached to the basket itself, while the basket is attached via a quick release system to the tow vehicle.
The envelope is then pulled out to its full width ready for inflation and the inflation fans are used to start filling the envelope with cold air. While the envelope is filling this is one of the busiest times for the pilot and crew as they carry out final checks on the balloon along with preparations for flight.
The envelope is now almost fully inflated with cold air and at this point the inflation fans are stopped and removed. The burners are then lit and fired into the mouth of the envelope to heat up the cold air that is inside. Gradually the temperature inside climbs and the envelope starts to lift. Once there is enough heat inside, the envelope stands straight up and brings the basket the right way up.
Now the basket is standing up the passengers are allowed to climb aboard and are re briefed by the pilot regarding safety (this briefing can also take place before the balloon is inflated depending on conditions on the day). Once the briefing is over the pilot starts using the burners again to create enough lift to carry the basket and all of the passengers. Once there is enough lift the quick release is activated (to separate the basket from the tow vehicle and the magical part of the adventure begins for the passengers as the balloon slowly climbs away from the launch site. The job of the crew is only just beginning…