Unusual Vacation Activities - Hot Air Balloons
Hot Air Balloons
The modern era of lighter-than-air flight began in France. The Montgolfier brothers were the first to take to the air, although another experimenter, Pilatre De Rozier, sent a sheep, a duck and a rooster up for about fifteen minutes two months earlier.
It was also a Frenchman who was the first man to fly across the English channel - Jean Pierre Blanchard, accompanied by American John Jefferies.
Hot air balloons were considered obsolete as helium designs became more common, and most practical use balloons and airships use helium-filled envelopes (although a shortage of helium may lead to some changes). Over the last fifty years, though, hot air balloons have become popular for leisure.
It is now possible to find an operator willing to take you up in many parts of the world (For example, the pictures with this article were taken just outside Phoenix, AZ). There are, in fact, at least 10 operators in the United Kingdom. Wherever your vacation plans take you, it might be possible to find a balloon flight.
The cost of a balloon flight varies considerably. Expect to pay anywhere from $60 to $150 per person. Some flights include a picnic after landing and most, by tradition, include champagne and certificates that are presented after the flight.
Flights generally last 1-3 hours.
Time of Day
One of the things you will probably notice is that balloonists fly at the beginning or the end of the day...and in some areas only at the beginning. The very beginning. Pre-dawn starts are not unusual. In other places evening flights are only available at certain times of year. Many morning flights serve breakfast after you land, making the very early start a little more palatable. (If traveling east to west, consider booking a flight for right at the start of your trip when you're still jetlagged).
The reason for this is to seek out stable weather conditions. Sunrise is the time at which the atmosphere is calmest and the wind patterns most predictable - which makes for a safer, smoother and more controlled flight. (And yes, you do have some control over a balloon. You can control altitude, which allows the pilot to take advantage of wind currents at different heights. However, it is still possible to end up somewhere you did not plan to go).
What if you are airsick or afraid of heights?
It is nearly impossible to get airsick in a balloon. There is literally no sensation of motion...you can blink and realize you just went up four thousand feet.
For the same reason, many people who are afraid of flying or heights have no problems in a balloon basket. The baskets are fairly deep and you would have to work at it to fall out...trust me. The incredible stability of the basket (it feels more like standing on a very tall tower than flying) makes for a comfortable trip...and is also fantastic for aerial photography.
What to wear and take.
I recommend wearing sensible shoes...sneakers or tennis shoes are best. Do not wear heels or skirts that impede your motion - most baskets have to be climbed in and out of and they're quite deep.
Temperatures in the basket tend to be lower than what you would normally expect, especially as flights take place at dawn or dusk. Wear a light jacket if you would normally wear a shirt, a heavy jacket if you think you need a light one. Although the burner generates a little bit of heat, it's mostly directed away from you. If you are used to sailing in small boats - dress about the same way as the temperature difference is similar.
Take a camera, but make sure you have it on a strap around your neck or a lanyard...you don't want to drop it from five thousand feet. (If you use your phone to take pictures, then consider finding a way to secure it...it's hard to resist the temptation to lean out of the basket slightly to get a shot).
Hot air ballooning is very safe. The accident in New Zealand that claimed the lives of several passengers a couple of years ago was newsworthy because it was so unusual. Modern balloons are carefully designed to minimize the risk of fire. Balloons are so slow moving that if they do crash, injuries are unusual.
Follow the instructions of the captain at all times. (And don't try to talk over the burner. You'll be wasting your breath).
The most common ballooning accident is for the basket to tip over on landing. This happens fairly often, but if you put yourself in the proper 'landing position', then you are unlikely to get hurt even if it does. Never climb out of the basket before the balloon is tied down, as it is likely to take off again...best case result is a very annoyed balloon pilot. The most common injury balloon passengers sustain is a sprained ankle or pulled muscle from climbing into or out of the basket.
Your captain will choose a launch site that takes into account weather conditions and finding a good place to land. Balloonists tend to fly in flocks, so expect company in the air. Your flight will be followed by a 'chase vehicle' driven by the ground crew, who's job is to get you (and the balloon) safely back to the airport after the landing. For most passenger operations there are two chase vehicles - a truck set up to transport the basket and envelope and a mini-van for passenger transportation.
In the air balloons, like sailing ships, have the right of way over everyone except for airplanes in distress. They are still subject to air traffic control, however.
What's with the champagne?
Balloonists are like sailors. They have their traditions.
When the Montgolfier brothers first flew, they took a bottle of champagne with them...but after they landed in somebody's field, they ended up offering it to the landowner (who was less than pleased about them scaring him and his animals) instead.
To commemorate that first flight, it is traditional to drink a glass of champagne after a successful flight to this day. Some operators will also provide a light breakfast on landing...check with them. Given the very early start, it may not be practical to eat before your flight.