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weather clouds


Flying and the Weather

"It is hard enough for anyone to map out a course of action and stick to it, particularly in the face of the desires of one's friends; but it is doubly hard for an aviator to stay on the ground waiting for just the right moment to go into the air."                                           

Glenn  Curtiss, 1909

Glenn Curtiss 1909      Glenn Curtiss was an American aviation pioneer and founder of the Curtiss Aeroplane Company. His words, spoken over 100 years ago, still ring true today. We are often faced with the desires of our "friends" or passengers who want to go flying. They are excited and anxious about the prospect of doing so. Some things have not changed in over one hundred years; it's still hard for us to stay on the ground when everyone, including ourselves, want to fly! 

    A great deal of our time and energy is spent observing, obtaining, and analyzing weather reports to determine if it is "just the right moment" to go into the air. This page will help you understand the rationale for rescheduling flights and give you some insight into our decision making process. It does not matter if you are flying one of the least sophisticated aircraft, such as a hot air balloon, or the most sophisticated, the weather is going to play a factor. Some launches will inevitably be "scrubbed" as we surrender to Mother Nature and pay respect to the planet's atmosphere!

"Weather" to Fly or Not - That is the Question?

 The Conditions that Will Keep us on the Ground  

 Wind      words to look for in a forecast: gusty, breezy, windy, blustery, small craft warningsstrong wind , high wind warnings

        Wind is the most critical factor in safe ballooning; it effects every phase of a flight. More balloon flights are cancelled due to wind than for any other reason. Balloons fly best in light and stable winds of 4-6 miles per hour. Maximum safe winds are 8-10 mph. Here are the reasons wind is such an issue:

  1.     During inflation the balloon is filled with cold air using a fan. The balloon fabric is just a giant sail, and winds approaching 10 mph make it almost impossible to fill the balloon. The wind will cave the side of the balloon in and the resulting sail effect places tremendous loads on both the fabric and the basket. These forces can be 3-10 tons depending on the size of the balloon. The balloon will roll around, sometimes violently. It is tied off to keep even a gentle breeze from causing it to drag downwind, but we have seen a gust cause the balloon to drag the trailer and van it was tied to across the grass! Pretty impressive to watch - not much fun!

  2.     Strong winds in flight can take the balloon farther than the pilot has room to fly. Remember that the winds aloft are generally stronger than the winds at the surface. Since a balloons flight path and the distance it will travel is dictated solely by the wind's speed and direction, this can be an issue if high winds carry the balloon into areas that are unsuitable for a landing. Such areas include: metropolitan areas, large expanses of forest, restricted airspace, and large bodies of water. All of these are factors in our immediate flying area.

  3.     Lastly, there is the landing. A balloon's speed across the ground will be the speed of the wind it is flying in. High wind speeds mean that the pilot needs a larger area to land in. A balloon relies on the friction of the basket dragging along the ground to come to a stop as balloons do not have brakes. In a high wind landing you are trying to stop 3-10 tons, all moving at the speed of the wind, without brakes - the basket will skip, drag and bounce along the ground. It will eventually layover on its side while continuing to drag along the ground. Again, impressive just not much fun.

Winds Aloft

        The winds on the surface are just one of our concerns. We have to think three dimensionally and consider what the wind is doing at altitude as well. This is perhaps the most confusing aspect for our passengers. There is not even a hint of a breeze on the ground and your flight has just been cancelled due to wind. How come? We look at winds at the surface (the wind you can feel) and the winds at 1 to 9,000 feet.  We are not going to 9,000 feet, but it tells us if we might encounter issues such as wind shear, turbulence, or strong surface winds later on. Even if there are no winds to speak of at the surface, the winds aloft may drive our decision not to fly. Winds aloft of 18-20 knots or 20 miles per hour can be sufficient to reschedule a flight.

Poor Visibility         words to look for in a forecast: foggy, hazy, misty                                lookout

        How far can we see? Our aircraft are designated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as Visual Flight Rules (VFR) certified. That means we must have a certain amount of visibility to fly legally. The visibility must be 1 to 3 miles, depending on where we are flying. If we don't have it, we can't fly! 

Rain & Storms  words to look for in a forecast: thunderstorms, rain, chance of showers or storms

picture of lightning

        The decision not to fly in rain or storms seems a simple one - of course we don't! What isn't so simple is why your flight may be cancelled when no storm or rain actually happens in the area. We must often make our decision based on a forecast. Despite the many advances in weather prediction, forecasting remains an imprecise science. We often refer to forecasts as "horoscopes with numbers." Our idea of long range forecasting is 4 hours and we don't place a great deal of faith in them! Forecasts for our flying area are limited to Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) and Harrisburg International (MDT). We are practically equal distance between the two and what happens in our flying area may be very different from the forecast - both good and bad!

        Storms can be significant events to any type of aircraft, but a balloon is perhaps the most weather sensitive aircraft there is. An airplane can turn and run from a storm whereas a balloon is drawn into a storm. The winds will accelerate and head toward a building storm and flow out of a decaying storm. These gust fronts can occur 75 to 100 miles away from the actual storm and create winds that are dangerous to a balloon. Once again, it's the wind! If storms are forecast or there are storms within 100 miles we will reschedule flights.


        Since hot air balloons fly by changing the temperature inside the balloon with heat, it stands to reason that outside air temperature is going to affect balloon flights, and it does! When the air in the balloon is heated, it becomes hotter and thus less dense than the surrounding outside air. This hotter air is "lighter" and the balloon will float upward. The more heat, the higher up you go. A balloon will fly when its temperature is around 140 degrees above the outside air temperature (generally). So, the colder it is outside, the less heat it takes to fly and conversely, the hotter it is outside, the more heat it will take to fly. Can't wrap your head around this? Here is an example:

Outside Air Temperature    +   Heat it Takes to Fly (140 F)  =   Temperature Inside the Balloon
    Cold day of 30 degrees F     + 140 F                   =  170 degrees inside the balloon
    Hot  day of 95 degrees F     + 140 F                   =  235 degrees inside the balloon (more heat if it's hot out)

        This is of particular concern to companies operating smaller balloons. The smaller the balloon, the less lift capacity it will have and the hotter it must be inside the balloon for it to fly. The maximum continuous operating temperature for most hot air balloons is 250 degrees Fahrenheit. That leaves little margin for safety and for maneuvering on a very hot day. We are operating larger balloons than most and will only cancel flights for temperature if we think it will be uncomfortable for our passengers. We will give you the option to fly or not.


Some of the weather sources we use

        We use a vast array of sources to arrive at our "go, no go" decision. Most of our information comes from FAA mandated briefing sites that require a pilots license to access and a log in. You should know that we are required, by Federal Air Regulations, to obtain a complete weather briefing prior to every flight.

        Many passengers obtain their own weather information from one of the many sites available on the internet - we encourage you to take an active role in your flight but remember, we are looking at very different aviation weather information. Many of the reports available to the general public do not contain the information required for a pilot - the FAA only recognizes a weather briefing provided by a Flight Service Station, or one of two Direct User Access Terminals (DUAT). We will be happy to discuss our decision with you but, the pilot-in-command is the final authority on a flight.

Here are a few of the "non-official" adjunct sites we find useful that you too may use:

ADDS - Winds/Temps        Surface Prognostication Charts       Radar Summary        Aviation Weather    

    If you happen to be rescheduled due to weather, remember two things: first, no one wants to fly more than your balloon crew; it's what we're passionate about! Second, you came to us for our expertise; trust our experience and judgment to make sound decisions based on the best information available.

Find more about Weather in Bel Air, MD
Click for weather forecast

About our decision making

We are very conservative when it comes to weather analysis and our decision to fly: we prefer to err on the side of safety!

      Occasionally we get telephone calls from passengers who were scheduled to fly with another company. Sometimes, they saw us flying when their own flight had been cancelled. They don't understand why and ask us to explain. There are several reasons why we may have been flying when other companies were not:

  • We are very experienced and may be flying in conditions above their level of expertise. The last thing you want, is to be in the air with a pilot who is outside his or her comfort zone!

  • The area that we fly in has a great deal of variability in the weather from one area to the next - our proximity to the Bay is the primary reason. Conditions can be radically different just a few miles farther inland or even 10-15 miles away!

  • We fly full time and as a result, it keeps us proficient and our skill levels high.

  • We provide flight instruction and take our student pilots out on training flights in conditions that we won't fly our passengers in.

    We will never criticize a pilot for deciding not to fly. It takes more courage not to fly; it's far easier to succumb to the pressures to fly. We tell our pilots that "you never make a bad decision when you decide not to fly." Occasionally we cancel a flight only to watch the weather improve to flyable conditions; alas, hindsight is always 20/20!

    As a young student pilot and beyond, I have received a great deal of advice and counsel along the way. Perhaps the most sage of which involved the weather. As a teenage student pilot, a grizzled old Naval Aviator took me aside and gave me my first weather indicator:

It was a blue 3x5 card with a hole punched in it. It came with the following instructions written on the back:

1. Hold the card up to the sky

2. Look at the sky through the hole 

3. If the sky color matches the color of the card go flying!

4. If the sky is any other color, Don't go flying!                  


    We thought this worth passing on! A little simplistic perhaps, but it's certainly a healthy dose of common sense; plus it has made a lifelong impression on me! The safety of your flight will never be compromised!

Ready to Fly? (weather permitting of course!) Call to Schedule


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