So, you are scheduled for a morning flight? Awesome! That's my favorite time to fly. The air is crisp, the sky is clear and you can see, literally, for miles and miles! Better set that alarm EARLY! You will meet your pilot and crew about 30 minutes before sunrise. Please, make sure you get there on time, and, if possible, 5-10 minutes early! Hot air balloon flights have a short window of time to fly, so, it is imperative that you arrive, ready to fly!
While you don't have to get on your "Sunday best," we have some basic recommendations for what type of clothing would be best.
- Footwear - Ballooning is an outdoor event. I suggest you wear the same show that you would for a hike through the woods. Something sturdy and provides protection for your feet - Boots or gym shoes are preferred. Flip-Flops, open toed sandles, shoes with significant heals are not on the recommended list.
- Clothing - Stay comfortable and dress for the weather as it is on the ground. No need to bring that extra jacket - temperature only drops 3 degrees for every 1000-1500 feet, so, you shouldn't notice much difference while in flight. Depending on temperatures, long pants may be better choice rather than shorts in that rare case your pilot doesn't land on fresh cut grass. Hats! I highly recommend a hat...especially for you not-so-vertically challenged folks out there. The burners produce a great amount of heat, and, at times, that heat is radiated down into the basket. A hat will will do wonders to protect the 'ole noggin. And, ladies... I would recommend wearing pants or shorts. Unless you are an exhibitionist, you may want to leave your skirts at home for this one!
- Extras - You can leave the luggage at home. Your flight will only be about an hour. You need to ask yourself - will I really need that purse or that bulky camera bag within the next hour? If not, please stow it in the chase vehicle and you will have it available once you land.
Your pilot has a list of items he continually checks to be sure you have a fun and safe adventure. After all, your safety comes above all else. The following is a list of the most important things and some of the procedures they go through before each flight.
From the moment you schedule your flight, your pilot has been checking weather conditions in the area to ensure you have a safe flight. These conditions can change rapidly, so, you may get a call at 5:00am in the morning to cancel the flight if things are just right. There are several restrictions that a pilot must/should adhere to in regards to flying a balloon:
- 1-Mile Visibility - When you are standing on the field, you must be able to see 1 mile in all directions (straight up doesn't count!). Because balloons lack the ability to move laterally, the only method of avoiding obstructions is to go up and over, or down and under. If you can't see what is coming, however, it is very difficult to manage either.
- Winds < 8 MPH - Balloons can fly in high winds. However, it is very difficult to launch or land a balloon in anything much higher than 8 mph. In fact, it is common to have a perfect launch in low wind speed conditions only to find winds aloft (up in the sky) traveling much fast - like 25 mph. No worries, though! Remember, you are flying with the wind...you won't even know unless the pilot mentions it to you.
- Temperatures - As I'm writing this, it's about 10 degrees outside. Can we still fly? Sure can! The ability for a hot air balloon to fly is not restricted by outside temperatures and can fly during very cold or very hot conditions. However, not all ride businesses will do so. From my experience, flying in the middle of the summer, in temperatures above 95 degrees is not an enjoyable exercise. Pilot and crew often agree that the heat is bad enough, but, working in the heat with a 25-million BTU heat source is even worse! My colleagues will confer and typically cancel on high-humidity, high-temperature days like this.
- PiBal - This is short for "Pilot Balloon." This is a small, toy, latex balloon filled with helium that is released to float into the sky, untethered. What we are looking for is a more than 45 degree of rise as the balloon travels away. That will tell us that the surface winds are sufficient for flying. As the pibal continues to rise, we can tell what the winds are doing further up in the sky. These balloons are typically about 14" in diameter and rise at about 300 feet per minute. So, roughly 3 minutes in, we can see what kind of winds are at 1000' AGL (above ground level). This will also show us direction of flight (although, your pilot already knows that!).
Once you arrive at the launch location, your pilot and crew will greet you and retrieve required liability waivers. Shortly thereafter, your pilot will gather you and any other passengers together for a brief discussion about safety. During this time, the pilot will make introductions of other pilots and all ground crew personnel. He will also discuss the process by which balloons fly, the procedures that will be taken to ensure everyone is kept safe during the flight, as well as some of the basic TO-DO's and NOT-TO-DO's during the adventure. Here are a few items that should be discussed:
- Inflation procedures
- Operation of the inflation fan (where's the OFF switch)
- Components of the interior of the basket
- What to hold on to; What NOT to hold on to
- Options for getting into the basket
- Landing approach preparedness
- High-wind landing procedures
- Post-Flight exit
- Landowner relationships
- In-Flight beverage service (where is the bottles of water)
- Volunteering on inflation/deflation process
This is also a time for you to ask procedural questions. If you couldn't hear or need clarification on something that was mentioned, please ask at this time. Your question will likely help everyone else better understand, as well!