To say the British weather is unpredictable is an understatement.
Where else is it not unheard of to get snow in May and droughts in winter?
Getting the right conditions for our hot air balloon flights is vital not only for a smooth and enjoyable flight but more importantly for the safety of our passengers.
The term ‘fair weather friends’ is highly appropriate to describe Virgin Balloon Flights’ relationship with the UK climate.
The bottom line is that if the weather conditions are not safe for flying a balloon, we simply can’t and won’t put our passengers at risk.
You can read more about why we have to cancel flights in an earlier blog we posted here.
But in this post, we wanted to explain in more detail just how the weather affects our flights, how likely your flight is to be cancelled and what we will do for you to make sure you do get up in the air.
So what is ‘perfect ballooning weather’?
In brief, the perfect weather conditions our hot air balloons need to fly are:
- Good visibility
- Light winds of less than 10-12 miles per hour
Winds even a little stronger than 10-12 miles per hour are simply too strong for us to be fully confident of your safety and we would never risk our passengers by flying in such conditions.
Although rarer, sometimes we have the opposite situation, in that there is not enough wind to fly. In these cases, you simply wouldn’t go anywhere once you are up in the air.
Poor visibility is an easy one too. The whole point of a hot air balloon flight is to enjoy spectacular views of our gorgeous UK landscapes.
If you can’t see anything, it would be a wasted trip, not to mention the added risk of a pilot trying to fly up to 16 passengers in a 120ft tall, 2.5 tonne piece of equipment 2,000 feet above the ground when they can’t clearly see where they’re going.
Again, we would never risk it.
But why don’t we fly when it’s raining? Surely a light shower of rain won’t affect things that much, right?
The fact is, yes it does and much more than you might imagine.
The top of a hot air balloon in flight is almost 100 degrees centigrade. If rain falls on the balloon, it cools it down, meaning the pilot has to use the burners a lot more to get the heat back up again enough to stay in the air.
So even a gentle rain shower can make a hot air balloon harder to control.
But it’s a sunny, dry day outside with hardly any wind?
This could very well be the case down on the ground but remember that a hot air balloon travels at anything up to 5,000 feet in the air.
Both wind direction and strength can differ the higher you go. An unstable weather system also causes problems, as the wind speed and direction can become unpredictable.
It could be that the wind direction would take the balloon a distance or direction the pilot has concerns about, such as towards restricted airspace or an area where his experience shows there are few suitable landing spots.
Our pilots don’t just carry out a quick check of the BBC Weather website before making a decision whether to go ahead with or cancel a flight.
That’s fine if you’re wondering whether or not to have a barbecue but nowhere near good enough when you’re deciding whether to take more than a dozen people on a once-in-a-lifetime hot air balloon trip.
They instead receive detailed, specialist aviation weather forecasts that give the wind speeds and directions at various different heights.
It really can be a dry, sunny day but if winds are not right at the levels we fly, our pilots will not risk your safety.
Virgin Balloon Flights has some of the best, most experienced and enthusiastic hot air balloon pilots in the world.
They are balloon pilots because they are so passionate about hot air ballooning.
They love to fly and want to do so as often as they can.
Most of them even head out to warmer climes during our non-flying season in the winter just so they can fly some more for their own enjoyment. (Read more about our chief pilot Ken and Yorkshire pilot Dave's lifelong love for ballooning here and here.)
If they make the decision that conditions are not safe to fly you, then they’re not.
Why do we only fly in the morning and evening?
Mornings generally offer the best conditions for hot air ballooning.
Winds are generally at their lightest shortly after dawn then as the sun comes up, it warms the ground, which in turn heats the air above it causing thermals (or columns of rising air).
These thermals cause updrafts and downdrafts that affect any pilot’s ability to safely control the balloon’s altitude, no matter how skilled they are.They can also cause unpredictable gusts of wind and even without the safety issues this could cause, nobody wants to be buffeted back and forth on what should be a gentle and serene trip through the skies.
As evening approaches and the air cools again, these thermals reduce once more, meaning we can fly in the evenings if conditions allow.You can read more about how thermals can even affect one of the biggest hot air balloon festivals in the world, Bristol Balloon Fiesta, here.
How likely is it that your flight will be cancelled?
There is no easy answer to this.
The short answer is, it might be and you should be prepared for the possibility each time you book.
And whether your flight is cancelled or not really is down to pure luck.
Some of our passengers are lucky and get to fly first time or after just one cancellation.
For others it can take several attempts and, depending on when they are able to rebook, these cancellations can be spread across more than just one flying season.
We can’t see into the future so there is no way when you make your booking that we can tell you whether or not your flight will go ahead on that day.
But this is not a unique situation to Virgin Balloon Flights.
We’ve been in business for 21 years and are proud to say we are the largest commercial balloon flight operator in the UK.
That means we have a LOT more customers than many of the smaller, local balloon operators.
But all of us, regardless of size, are weather dependent and none of us will put our passengers at risk when it is not safe to fly.
What happens if your flight does get cancelled?
After any cancellation on our part, we will always make sure that you have at least six months left on your vouchers to book another flight.
If this means we have to extend your vouchers beyond their initial 12 or 18-month validity, then we will.
Every time you book a flight, the booking confirmation you receive from us has the new expiry date of your voucher should it get cancelled.
It doesn’t matter how many times your flight might get cancelled on our part, we will extend your voucher every single time until you do get up in the air.
All you have to do is make sure you have made at least one flight booking within the validity period left on your voucher.
It is very important that you do make a booking before your new expiry date in order for your voucher to remain valid.
We have a lovely bunch of people in our call centre, who are very happy to help you with what flight dates are available if you haven’t been able to find anything suitable on the website.
This helpful lot are available on 01952 212750 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of our vouchers do not have a refund option but we do have one, our National 7-Day Anytime Plus option that does offer a refund following a minimum number of cancellations on our part.
Our full terms and conditions on cancellations and the rest of our service can be found here.
Is it worth the wait?
We truly believe the answer is YES.
When they do get up in the air, even passengers who have had several cancellations over more than one flying season tell us that it has been worth the wait.
“Breathtaking”, “tranquil”, “unforgettable”, “stunning”, “a dream come true” and “incredible” are just some of the words we have heard from passengers once they come back down to earth.
Even in Scotland, where the weather can sometimes be even more challenging than south of the border in England, those who have flown give us great reviews.
And if you need more convincing, this video of one of our flights gives you another taste of what awaits you when your flight does go ahead.
We all love what we do here at Virgin Balloon Flights and knowing we helped someone make unique memories to last a lifetime makes our job even more worthwhile.
If we could, we would have our hot air balloons in the skies 365 days a year.
But because this is simply not possible thanks to our unpredictable friend the British weather, we do everything we can to make sure your flight is absolutely perfect when it does go ahead.