We thought you might be a curious type like us and would want to know a little bit about how hot air balloons work.
What is a Hot Air Balloon?
A hot air balloon is a unique flying craft which works because hot air rises. There are two main types of hot air balloon. Both were developed in the late 18th century and are still used today.
How Do Hot Air Balloons Work?
The more common ‘Montgolfier’ type uses fire to heat the air inside the balloon to gain lift. The next type is a hybrid balloon which uses hot air in the same way, but also has a compartment of helium or hydrogen gas in the top. A third 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 have been used for many long-distance ballooning records as they require less fuel to stay airborne for extended periods of time. Pilots from all over the world compete in gas balloons for the famous International Gordon Bennett Cup.
All of our Virgin hot air balloons are the Montgolfier type, so that’s what we will describe below.
What are the parts of a hot air balloon?
A modern hot air balloon is made up of the following things:
Balloons or Envelopes
The balloon or ‘envelope’ is a fabric bag made of strong, light nylon with an opening at one end called the mouth.
The envelope is laid out on the ground before a flight and partially inflated with cold air from high-powered fans before the air is heated with the burners to create lift required.
Passenger-carrying balloons range in size from those holding 77,000 cubic feet of air (called a ‘77’) to 600,000 cubic ft (a ‘600’). The biggest passenger balloon in the UK is our ‘400’ Virgin balloon, which towers over 120ft tall once inflated.
Envelopes are traditionally a familiar ‘inverted tear drop’ shape like ours, but some famous brands have ‘special shape’ hot air balloons for advertising purposes. Most balloons have a vent at the top and at the sides, so the pilot can let out air or rotate the balloon by pulling certain ropes as required.
Hot Air Balloon Baskets
The balloon basket which carries passengers is attached to the bottom of the envelope by extremely strong metal cables. Baskets have reinforced steel frames and are clad in woven wicker which is traditional, but also sufficiently light, strong and durable.
Balloon baskets vary in size from holding two people up to 24 people. Our hot air balloons carry between 10 and 16 passengers and are approximately the size of large board room table. Balloons have set minimum and maximum loading capacities.
Large balloon baskets are usually rectangular and are split into comfortable compartments for three or four people, giving everyone a fantastic view. Surfaces are covered in smooth leather and there are foot holes in the side of the basket so passengers can climb in and out. Many of our Virgin balloon baskets have bench seats which can be used for landing.
Hot Air Balloon Burners
The burner is essentially the ‘engine’ of the balloon. It is fixed to a metal frame attached above the basket under the mouth of the envelope. The burner mixes liquid propane from pressurised gas tanks with oxygen and ignites it. The pilot pulls a small valve which fires the burner and aims the flame into the mouth of the balloon to heat the air inside.
Our balloons have two burners including one which lets propane out more slowly making it quieter. This is called the ‘whisper burner’ and it is used when flying over residential areas or livestock.
Our balloons generally also have specially-fitted heat shields below the burners which stop it getting too toasty for you (but we still recommend a hat).
How do Hot Air Balloons Work?
Hot air balloons work because hot air rises. By heating the air inside the balloon with the burner, it becomes lighter than the cooler air on the outside. This causes the balloon to float upwards, as if it were in water. Obviously, if the air is allowed to cools, the balloon begins to slowly come down. Pilots have a great deal of control over the altitude of the balloon which they monitor with various instruments. They develop incredible anticipation skills over time and can often control a balloon’s decent within centimeters.
Steering a Hot Air Balloon
Balloons cannot be steered in the normal sense of the word so they travel in the direction of the wind, which varies at different altitudes. Pilots skillfully use this as a way of changing direction by burning to go up, or allowing the air to cool to go down, and catch different airstreams at different heights.
Pilots can use turning vents in the side of the balloon to rotate it 360 degrees so you have a full panoramic view and to make the broad side of the basket lead for landing.
Landing in a Hot Air Balloon
Hot air balloons don’t land in pre-decided locations like planes or helicopters do. They can’t be steered in the same way (that’s why it’s always an adventure!). Pilots bring the balloon into land, usually after around an hour in the air on a passenger flight, when they see a safe open space often out in the countryside.
The pilot asks all passengers to crouch down in the seated landing position (knees bent, back facing in the direction of travel and holding ropes provided). As the balloon approaches the ground, the pilot releases the vent at the top of the balloon letting the hot air escape.
When the basket touches down, sometimes there is a bump, a skid and the basket can occasionally tip over slightly. This is quite safe and normal. Balloons have been landing like this for over two hundred years and modern balloon baskets are designed for this. After a serene hour or so in the clouds, most people thoroughly enjoy the excitement.
Of course, the best way to learn about hot air balloons is to experience ballooning for yourself.
Hot air ballooning is the oldest form of aviation. Discover the history of hot air balloons here.