Yes you can steer a hot air balloon! Hot air balloons don’t have steering wheels, but hot air balloon pilots use the wind direction and speed at different heights in order to steer the balloon. Hot air balloon pilots control their ascent and descent but can’t steer the balloon in a different direction without changing altitude.
Steering hot air balloons to specific landing sites is an art and science. Surprisingly at Seattle Ballooning, we steer our balloons to the same 4 landing sites 74% of the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sunrise or sunset hot air balloon ride, our experienced balloon pilots are able to control the balloon and navigate to specific locations. By the end of this article, you’ll have a deep understanding of how hot air balloon pilots flight plan and steer balloons. Balloon navigation and flight planning can be broken down into a few areas. Pre-flight wind direction and weather conditions, on-field observed wind direction, in fight surface wind direction, and winds at altitude.
Pre-flight weather and general direction of flight
So where does the weather education process start before your balloon ride? Our process at Seattle Ballooning starts 72 hours out. A final decision is made a few hours before the planned hot air balloon ride. Balloon pilots get weather and wind information from a variety of sources. Our pilots at Seattle Ballooning have a few favorites:
● Usairnet.com – Usairnet gives a good general idea of the ground wind direction and speed will be on the surface. It also shows the temperature, air pressure, humidity, and dew point spread (basically it tells you if it will be a good day to fly and what altitude the clouds will be at).
● RUC Sounding display – This is an amazing weather resource for balloon pilots. It’s a little more technical, but it shows you how the wind direction and speed will change during the balloon flight time. It also can show you if fog or onshore flow is forecasted for a specific time. Often it can look beautiful out with slow surface winds. What you learn from resources like this is, that the wind at 200 feet off the ground may be doing 20 Mph halfway through your flight.
● Washington Weather Discussion – In the state of Washington we are very lucky to have the University of Washington. They provide detailed updated discussions every 6 hours.
If the weather conditions look promising, the hot air balloon pilot, passengers, and ground crew will head out to a launch location. Most hot air balloon pilots have 5 -10 launch locations in all directions over a 10-mile radius. That way no matter the direction of the wind, they are able to fly and steer their balloon to a good landing site. Makes sense right! During the drive to the launch locations, pilots gather key data by keeping their eyes out for signs of what the wind is doing on the surface. Flags, smoke, and how much the tree branches are moving can give a lot of valuable information.
At the Balloon launch location: On-field observed wind direction
At Seattle Ballooning, we use 17″ balloons, otherwise known as Pibals. We fill our pibals with helium, release it in the air, and try to watch it for as long as possible (sometimes up to 8 minutes). Helium pibals rise at approximately 400 feet per minute and allow balloon pilots to determine the direction and speed of the winds aloft. From an outsider’s view, it is very confusing to see 10 random people looking up into the sky for 6-8 minutes. If the direction and speed are consistent with the forecasted winds, the balloon pilot and crew will start the inflation process.
In-flight surface wind
Ok! The balloon is inflated, the propane burner is on, the passengers are loaded, and the hot air balloon launches into the air. After initially ascending to 1000 feet, it’s important to see what kind of steerage there is below. The wind direction changes for a variety of reasons. Almost all wind is created by differences in pressure and changes in temperature. If the sun is out and warming up the surface of the earth, the wind will be constantly changing. So do balloon pilots have X-ray vision that allows them to see the wind? I wish. Instead balloon pilots drop items out of the balloon basket. The FAA’s rule is you can actually drop anything out of a hot air balloon as long as it does not damage any person or property.
Balloon pilots drop objects that are light and can easily be carried by the wind. Many pilots use the age-old technique of spitting over the side of the balloon basket and watching intently as the wind shifts it from side to side. This works great, except sometimes becomes difficult as you run out of saliva about halfway through the flight. The classier way is to use shaving cream. Shaving cream is light in weight, and when sprayed over the side of the basket can be easily seen for a few thousand feet. Every hot air balloon pilot has their favorite wind discovery device. I’ve seen hot air balloon pilots use shaving cream, popcorn, rose petals, wood shavings, and even cheezy poofs! If one morning, you’re on your porch drinking a warm cup of coffee, and a cheesy poof lands in your cup, you’ll know it’s just a hot air balloon pilot trying to see what the winds are doing.
When a balloon pilot knows what the winds are doing on the surface and aloft, it’s possible to steer the balloon to a specific area. The balloon pilot tacks by going up and down in altitude. Sometimes that change in direction requires the balloon to ascend 5000 ft – 8000 ft.