Although we’ve been spending a ton of money doing R&D on our weather-controlling device… it hasn’t succeeded. That means that hot air ballooning is highly weather-dependent, and Seattle can have some interesting weather patterns throughout the 5-month flying season from May through September. In general, hot air balloon rides are not suited for marginal or bad weather, and this article will focus on that category of weather. Hot air balloon passengers are often surprised that cancelations happen, and we thought it would be helpful to break down some of the science and regulations. Whether you have a hot air balloon flight booked or not, you’ll find it both entertaining and educational.
Poor Weather For Hot Air Ballooning
In Seattle, hot air balloons do not fly in the rain, fog, high wind, when it’s too hot, or when thunderstorms are within 100+ miles. Sometimes it’s obvious to everyone that the weather isn’t good to fly that day (raining and a thunderstorm in the area). Other times, the sky is blue and clear of clouds, but still unsafe to fly. Pilots making those safety decisions have a deep understanding of weather and spend a ton of time becoming weather dorks.
Why Are Hot Air Balloon Rides Canceled Sometimes?
Let’s start with the not-so-obvious reasons hot air balloon rides are canceled for weather.
There are three times during a balloon flight that winds become incredibly important. Launching, steering, and landing.
Launching A Hot Air Balloon
Remember being a kid and throwing your jacket high up on a chainlink fence when it was windy out? Now imagine a ten-story-tall hot air balloon made of fabric in that same wind. Hot air balloons have a challenging time launching in a wind blowing more than ten mph or if wind gusts are present. When inflating in windy or gusty conditions, hot air balloons turn into giant sails and can thrash from side to side until they are successfully inflated or not. Can hot air balloons still go up on windy days? Yes, they just need to be launched in appropriate conditions, within the manufacturer’s limitations, and the pilot’s personal limitations and skillset.
Steering To A Suitable Landing Location
Seattle Ballooning has an area of 12 miles total in our flying area. Since hot air balloons only use the upper and lower winds to steer, it’s crucial that the winds at altitude aren’t too fast and go in a direction that makes sense. You can see the general predicted Seattle winds from the ground to 10k feet here.
Landing A Hot Air Balloon
There are two types of landings when flying a hot air balloon. Both are safe and normal. Stand-up landings are where the balloon and basket stand upright. Tip-over landings where there is additional wind. Safety is always the number one factor when landing a hot air balloon. Pilots try to land where there are no obstacles, no farm animals, and in areas that have enough room for landing. Fast landing conditions (winds 10+ mph) require passengers to be trained for faster wind landing positions. Although it is possible to land hot air balloons in winds faster than 17mph, it has increased risk. A good rule of thumb is that it will likely be a fast landing if you are launching a hot air balloon in fast wind. You can learn more about how pilots select landing locations in this article
Hot Air Balloons Never Fly In Thunderstorms
No aircraft fly in the middle of active thunderstorms. As a rule, hot air balloon pilots do not fly within 100 miles of a thunderstorm or if there is active radar in the area. Outflow is an invisible, horizontal stream of air from the base of a thunderstorm. Hot air balloons can’t get above outflow and can have speeds of 30-40 mph. Obviously, those would not be excellent conditions to fly in. You can check out the general radar forecast here for the Seattle area.
If It’s Too Hot, You Can’t Fly
If it’s too hot out, it’s miserable to be on a hot air balloon ride. People often ask us if it gets cold when we take a hot air balloon to altitude. The answer is no—the normal lapse rate in temperature decreases by 3 degrees every 1000 feet in altitude. However, the lapse rate is not consistent when it’s hot outside. Additionally, hot air balloons have 20M-30M BTU burners that heat the balloon, causing passengers to feel an additional 10-15 degrees of heat. As a pilot, the high temperatures and heavy air make the balloon sluggish. High temperatures can also cause wind gusts, thermals, and abnormal wind directions when the hot air is pulled into other air masses in the sky.
Flying A Balloon With A Cold Front Approaching Seattle? Not the best idea…
When cold fonts approach, there is often fast wind associated with it. One of the things we do in Seattle is check the areas outside of the Seattle area. We look as far up as Vancouver, Canada, as far East as Idaho, and as far south as Portland. Depending on how strong the low-pressure system is, it may or may not be safe to fly hot air balloons.
Can A Hot Air Balloon Fly In The Rain?
Although fixed-wing aircraft can fly in the rain, hot air balloons don’t typically fly in the rain. The rain isn’t great for the hot air balloon fabric, and the weather associated with rain isn’t safe to fly balloons in. As professional commercial hot air balloon pilots, we do not fly if there are any radar pops or thick clouds full of moisture in the Seattle area.
Low Clouds, Onshore Flow, and Fog
Hot air balloons are governed by the FAA and must follow VFR rules (visual flight rules). Any aircraft regulated by VFR rules isn’t allowed to fly through clouds, must stay 500 feet below a cloud, or 1000 feet above. Although legally hot air balloons can fly if the clouds are at 1500-2000 feet in class G or E airspace, it’s not a great flight. Most people fly with Seattle Ballooning because they want to see Mt. Rainier from the sky. Hot air balloons also can’t fly if there is fog on the surface as it makes it impossible to see powerlines and other hazards. Fog occurs when the temperature and dewpoint are the same. Fog can be a hazard to aviation because it typically doesn’t show up on radar. The Washington Weather Discussion supported by the University of Washington gives pilots insight into the possible fog, onshore flow, and low clouds.
Why Else do Hot Air Balloon Rides Get Canceled Besides The Weather?
Are there other reasons we cancel flights? Yes. The safety of our passengers, pilots, and crew is our number 1 priority. Our pilots are not superheroes. They get sick from time to time, get exhausted, have a gut feeling they shouldn’t fly, or have uncontrollable things that happen in their lives. Choosing to launch that day or not is always the choice of the individual pilot. As a business, we support those pilots in their safe decision-making.