Light Flight Hot Air Balloons, Inc. & Barnstormer Aero
The People Behind the Launching & Landing of Hot Air Balloons and How You Can Become a "Crew" Member
See how a balloon ride happens from start to finish
Have you ever wondered how a hot air balloon manages to get airborne? As magical as balloon flights seem, getting the aircraft into the air doesn't happen magically! It takes a crew! There are always a number of dedicated crew people required to assemble, inflate, chase, and pack up the balloon.
The pilots always seem to get the glory, but a balloon pilot without crew is just a pedestrian! We make no distinction between our pilots and ground crew. Both are integral parts of a skilled team that is necessary for the safe operation of the aircraft. The term "crew" is used to refer to anyone involved in our balloon flight operations. Unlike many other aircraft which can be easily taken out and flown by a single person, a hot air balloon is neither easily, nor safely handled by just the pilot. For starters, just the fabric part (envelope) of a balloon weighs several hundred pounds.
How many people does it take to inflate a balloon? It Depends on a number of variables:
- How experienced is everyone involved?
- How much wind are you inflating in?
- How big is the balloon?
Ballooning requires a degree of competence and skill sets that can only be developed over time. Obviously, the less experience you have the more difficult any task. The amount of wind a balloon is being inflated in is critical. The fabric can be whipped around forcefully in a high wind inflation. The larger the balloon, the heavier it is and the more air it holds.
More people are familiar with boating than ballooning, so some pretty good analogies may be made using life at the pier; besides we're a Chesapeake Bay ballooning company! When it comes to experience, we have all watched boats docking. It is fairly obvious, even to the casual observer, who the experienced "captain" is and who is not. Shouting and hollering and then the crash into the dock, immediately followed by more shouting and hollering, is a hallmark of the inexperienced helmsman. You can tell who the person is who does it everyday and the ones who do it twice a year! Experience and practice matter!
Wind is a confounding factor for boaters and balloonists alike. Its variability and unpredictability, especially when gusty, can turn a quiet affair into an adventure in seconds. The balloon fabric is a giant sail. It will spinnaker in very little wind. If you don't think there is much wind, just put up an 90 foot tall sail and watch the effects. That's right, an inflated balloon stands about 90 feet tall. The air inside of the balloon has weight too. A cubic foot of air weighs .078125 pounds. A medium size balloon will hold 90,000 cubic feet of air and suddenly you have 7,031 pounds of air mass to contend with. This mass does not include such things as the aerodynamic load on the balloon, the weight of the balloon system itself, or the passengers and crew. Once again, like boats, the bigger they are the more of a handful they can be. Our 240,000 cubic foot balloons hold air that weighs 18,750 pounds; that's nearly nine and a half tons!
It may take as many as 7 or as few as 2 crew to properly handle a balloon, depending upon the variables. We are very experienced, endeavor to fly in only favorable wind conditions, and use 2 crew members on a medium balloon and 3 crew on our largest balloons of 240,000 cubic feet.
In a commercial balloon ride operation, the crew has duties that are not found in sport or recreational flying. The most important of these is their responsibility for ensuring that ride passengers are provided a level of exceptional customer service to make their experience as safe and enjoyable as possible.
Meeting the Passengers: The very first thing is to meet and greet passengers. All passengers are excited and have lots of questions to be answered. This is the first time in a balloon for many of our passengers. The Crew must be personable and knowledgeable. We meet passengers at a centrally located Park & Ride in Pylesville, MD and then travel to one of nearly three dozen launch sites. Which launch site we use is based on the wind speed and direction that day.
Meeting the passengers The chase van and Balloon Basket, Burner & Inflator fan Attaching the envelope (fabric portion) to the basket
Driving to the Launch Field and Unloading the Balloon: The crew will assist passengers into a chase vehicle and drive to a launch site. Chase vehicles can take many forms. We use 12 or 15 passenger vans for their ease of operation and passenger comfort. All the equipment is transported in the van or on a trailer. Once on the field, the crew will help the passengers out and proceed to unload the balloon equipment. The next job is to assemble the aircraft. The fabric must be attached to the basket and the burners and fuel lines must be installed and pre-flight inspected. This process takes about 10 minutes. The passengers and any spectators will receive a safety briefing during the assembly.
The envelope cold inflating Two balloons cold inflating Installing the deflation port Lighting the burner & hot inflation
Cold Air and Hot Air Inflation: Gasoline powered inflator fans are used to fill the balloon envelope with cold air as it lays on the ground. The crew holds the mouth of the balloon open and installs the deflation port at the top of the balloon. There are many types of deflation ports and our balloons have three different types. Once the balloon is packed full of cold air and the fabric is completely spread out, the propane burners will be lit and used to raise the balloon to the vertical. It only takes about 10 to 15 seconds to raise the balloon to the vertical with heat. Each burner is capable of generating 15 million btu's (British Thermal Units) of heat - your household furnace is probably only around 50-75 thousand btu!
After a Preflight Inspection the Fun Begins! After hot inflation and the balloon is standing upright, the crew will go through a preflight checklist and board passengers. Takeoff is next and the crew then loads the equipment left on the field and begins the process of chasing the balloon. Chasing a balloon is much more difficult than it may seem. The chase vehicle has to follow a road whereas the balloon has no such limitation. You might think that something so large and colorful as a hot air balloon would also be easy to keep in sight; the balloon can be there one minute and gone the next. Often times hidden by trees or far from the road that the van was traveling. Picking a route to take to intercept the balloon's flight path requires strong map skills and a keen understanding of the how the winds are affecting the flight.
Adding heat with the burner Completing the pre-flight inspection Our shadow on parked cars The fun of the flight & chase
Landing, Pack Up, & Celebration
The crew will endeavor to be at the landing site before the balloon arrives to assist with the landing. All pilots are taught to land without help but having crew at the ready, just like docking in boating, makes it easier. An important role for the crew is to obtain landowner permission for the landing. In 28 years of flying we have prior permission at many of the landing places we choose. After landing, the passengers will disembark and the process of deflating the balloon will begin. Inflation took about 25 minutes and so will deflating, packing, and loading the equipment. The landowner will be asked to join us in a celebratory toast of champagne or sparkling cider, a two hundred year old tradition.
Deflating the balloon Packing the envelope The champagne or cider toast - a two-hundred year old tradition
How to Join the Crew & Balloon Crew Positions
Light Flight Balloons has both volunteer and paid balloon crew opportunities. Some of our volunteer crew have been with us for more than twenty years. They earn flight time by crewing and enjoy the chance to fly at various times of the year. One of our pilots actually started his ballooning career as a passenger with us. His wife took him for an anniversary flight and he then joined the crew. After crewing for several years he expressed a desire to learn to fly and soon became a pilot.
Paid positions are part time and seasonal. It is ideal for retirees, college students, and those just looking for some extra spending money.
What you Will Receive:
Photo credits: Ms. Cheryl Williams http://www.photoreflect.com/pr3/ThumbPage.aspx?e=4089932&s=0 , Ms. Deborah Haliscak, and Mr. Dick Gilman