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How do hot air balloons fly?

21/12/2021 philip Features

Have you ever wondered how hot air balloons work? Undoubtedly, the best way to learn more is to experience the magic of ballooning for yourself, but if you’re curious, here’s a quick guide.

Rise and fall

The simple principle that makes a hot air balloon fly is that hot air is lighter than cool air. When a cubic foot of air is heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it becomes approximately seven grams lighter. This explains why hot air balloons are so big – if one cubic foot of air can only lift seven grams, it takes around 65,000 cubic feet to be able to raise 1,000 pounds in weight off the ground. In order to make the balloon rise, the pilot must turn on the burner to heat the air. The hotter the air, the quicker it will rise. When the pilot needs to guide the balloon down, the air can either be allowed to cool naturally, or hot air can be let out of the balloon.


The direction a hot air balloon travels is dependent on the wind. The direction of the wind can change at different altitudes, but there are certain actions a pilot can take to have control over the steering. To move the balloon in a certain direction, pilots need to move the balloon up or down because of the change in wind direction at different altitudes.

For example, if a pilot wanted to move the balloon west, they would move up or down until they find the westerly wind. Inside the basket, where the pilot and passengers stand, there is a cable that can turn the basket to face the direction that the balloon is travelling in. Pilots can also control the speed at which a balloon travels horizontally by changing altitude, as the higher up, usually the faster the wind speed.

Launch and land

Much of the crew work involved in hot air ballooning occurs when the balloons are launched and when they land. After finding a suitable area to launch the balloon from, the burner system must be attached to the basket and the balloon envelope is laid out on the ground. A powerful fan is then used to fill the balloon, and once there is enough air, the burner is switched on and the air is heated up, inflating the balloon further and starting to lift it off the ground. The basket is attached to the crew’s vehicle until everything is ready for the pilot to launch. Once a landing site has been agreed with the ground crew via radio, the pilot will bring the balloon down gradually until it is able to bump gently along the ground and come to a stop. The pilot then releases the air from the balloon, and the crew pull down the balloon envelope and prepare to pack it away.

Many people describe flying in a hot air balloon as one of the most peaceful experiences they have ever had. Ballooning is the perfect way to enjoy the stunning scenery of the British countryside and to really feel like you’re flying.

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