For a sum of money (usually ranging from $100 to $200 as far as I know, you can buy a hot-air balloon flight in most areas of the United States.

It's quite an experience. Since the wind is usally calmer in the wee hours of the morn, most balloonists fly at the butt crack of dawn. You get to watch them set up the balloon, and then (preferably when it's fully inflated and the basket is perpendicular to the ground) you climb in and take off, rising gently into the heavens. On most flights, the pilot will maintain a height of about 600 to 1000 feet, just enough to make everything on the ground look like an extremely detailed miniature model. (Or, to scare the pants off of you, depending on your tolerance of heights.)

The appeal of hot-air balloon flights is mostly in the fact that, unlike on a plane, you're usually moving quite slowly and the flight is silent. (Except when the pilot makes a burn, which only makes the following silence that much more palpatable.)

During the flight, a vehicle, usually a van, pickup-truck, or small, converted RV will drive around on the ground, following the balloon. When the balloon is ready to land the people in the vehicle will, ideally, be able to tell and run out to assist by climbing on the basket to keep the balloon from sliding on the ground or rising up in the air again.

A ceremony usually follows the flight to celebrate the aeronautical deflowering of the passengers, sometimes with certificates, champagne (representing the use of champagne in the celebration of the Montgolfier brothers after the first successful hot-air balloon flight ever), and a picnic. During this, the captain will sometimes make a speech and or coerce the passengers to partake in humorous, bizarre rituals, such as bowing to Mother Earth and thanking her for allowing you to return to the ground safely.

All in all, it's a lot of fun, even for the balloon crew.

Hot-air ballooning is the most serene and free-spirited way to fly. There is no steering wheel, gas pedal, or brake. Balloons are simple, consisting of a basket, propane burner, and a balloon (the more colorful the better).

  /        \
 (          )  <-- Balloon
  \        /
   \  _   /
    \_||_/ <-- Propane burner
     : :
    {___}  <-- Basket

Figure 1: Labeled diagram of a Hot-air balloon


All the balloon can do on its own is ascend (go up) and descend (go down). The rest is up to the wits of the pilot, who, by the way, will always insist ballooning is the safest form of flight. (This is because it is impossible to fall out of the sky under reasonably extreme conditions. They coast to the ground, instead of how a 747 falls like a rock. Even if punctured, they will still glide down.)

When a balloon lifts off, the pilot really has no idea where he is going to land. He is at the mercy of the air currents, although he can use them to his best advantage. By ascending and descending, the pilot is able to find different air currents at different heights and utilize them to carry the balloon and its occupants in the desired direction. Balloons, while using the available winds to their advantage, do not perform well under windy conditions. This is why balloons fly only at the hours just before dusk or after dawn, when the winds are at their lowest.

Well, that explains the basics of steering. Braking, however, is trickier. One way is to time the descent to slowly land in an open area, like a meadow or cornfield. This is the least exciting and safest way to stop.

Another, more radical and gutsy way to slow down is to descend near the treetops and drag the basket along the tops of the trees for a "quickie" stop. If you don't do it right, you could end up being one big hot-air tree fort! The fastest way to stop is to pull the "red line." This is the cord that opens the vent at the top of the balloon, and releases the air quickly (yet not fast enough to truly plummet) to cause the balloon to fall to the ground.

How to avoid offending the farmers

Ballooning is so unpredictable that ground chase crews must drive after the balloons wherever they go, in order to pick up the crew when they land. Occasionally, this is in a farmer's field, and some farmers don't take kindly to balloon and chase vehicle knocking down their hard-earned crops of corn, soybeans, or whatever. In that case, the balloonist usually ends up paying damages for the lost crop, or gets a night in jail for breaking and entering (though rare, that has happened. Police give them one night just to appease the farmer). The smart balloonist keeps a bottle of spirits in his basket to help soothe any irate farmer's feelings. Speaking of spirits, many balloonists offer romantic evening champagne flights (works great for the bachelor balloonist!). However, if your pilot starts scraping the treetops, you may feel more nauseous than romantic.

When Etienne (given by some sources as Jacques) and Joseph Montgolfier were small children, living in France, they had a passion. Flying kites, specifically kites made of paper. Due to the construction of the kites, they had to be quite skillful to ensure that when the wind died, that their kites would not fall onto trees on in the water, or anywhere else that might otherwise harm the fragile flyers. Legend has it that one day, the two brothers were flying their kites when the wind died suddenly, causing the toys to plummet downwards, directly towards (to their horror) a large bonfire built by a farmer who was clearing wood. However, when the kites were still some distance above the conflagration, they slowed, righted themselves, and slowly began to float back upwards, borne by the rising hot air from the fire.

This event was supposedly the instigation of their later attempts to use the nature of rising heat to create a flying machine that would support people.

The first prototype hot air balloon, the "Aerostat Reveillon" is sometimes credited to them, and sometimes credited to other inventors, like Pilatre De Rozier. What is known is that the flight took place on September 19th, 1783, and that the passengers were a rooster, a sheep, and a duck.

The Montgolfier brothers developed the next prototype, which was launched on November 21st, 1783, from Paris. The launch of this design was the first manned balloon flight, and carried two french noblemen. The balloon was constructed from lightweight paper and silk. The flight lasted for about 20 minutes before the ballon landed in some vineyards, where the noblement placated the frightened farmers by giving them champagne (still apparently a ballooning tradition). The hot air balloon was born.

In the 1960s, two major changes in the technology and materials used in hot air ballooning left us with the modern concept of the sport; comparatively little advancement had been made from the 1700s up until this point, except for advances in materials, which were generally developed by other industries. The first is using Ripstop nylon as material for the balloon, and the second is heating the balloon's air with an LPG gas burner. These two innovations have greatly increased the safety of the activity.

The continuous petroleum gas burner for ballooning was developed in October of 1960 by Raven Industries of South Dakota, who initially supplied balloons for research purposes to the US Navy.

The current world record holder for fastest circumnavigation of the globe with a hot air balloon is held by Steve Fossett, of the USA, in his balloon, The Spirit of Freedom. Steve has the added distinction of having performed this feat while flying solo. The trip took 13 days, 8 hours, and 33 minutes.

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