What weather is good for hot air ballooning?

by | Jul 20, 2021 | Hot Air Ballooning

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.

hot air balloon rides with group

What kind of weather isn’t good for hot air balloon rides in the Seattle area?

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.

Let’s start with the not-so-obvious reasons hot air balloon rides are canceled for weather.

weather for hot air balloon ride

Wind

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.

Launching hot air balloons in perfect weather

Steering the hot air balloon 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.

hot air balloon flying to landing location

Landing

There are two types of landings when flying a hot air balloon. Both are safe and normal. Stand up landings is where the balloon and basket stands 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.

hot air balloon rides landing in calm wind

Hot air balloons in Seattle never fly thunderstorms

No aircrafts 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.

 weather radar washington state

If it’s too hot in Seattle, we can’t provide hot air balloon rides

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.

hot air balloon rides too hot to fly

Flying a hot air balloon with a strong 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.

Rain in the Seattle area

Although fixed-wing aircraft can fly in the rain, hot air balloons don’t. This one is pretty straightforward.

Hot air balloon ride in good weather

Low clouds, onshore flow, and fog in Seattle

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 flights get canceled in the Seattle area 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.

 

best weather for hot air balloons

About the Author

Chief pilot of Seattle Ballooning. I get the opportunity to provide luxury hot air balloon rides just South of Seattle in front of Mt. Rainier. When you do what you love, it's not considered work.

Seattle Washington

https://seattleballooning.com/

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