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.