For many years, I had always wondered what it would be like to take a ride on a hot air balloon. It wasn’t something I thought about often, but every once in a while, I’d be driving around town, especially early in the morning, and I’d spot a hot air balloon, and think: “Cool! That would be fun to try someday.”
And it’s actually kind of weird to think about that exact scenario: I can be driving in a car, on a paved road, in the 21st century, with the radio playing, and my smartphone giving me turn-by-turn GPS directions, while a balloon flies overhead, with people in it.
It’s such an anachronism: hot air balloons are over 235 years old, and yet, we’re still using them. We’re using them today even as we drive in cars and trucks, fly on planes, and take rides on trains, buses, and even rockets and space shuttles. All of these are essentially methods of transportation to get people from one place to another.
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Yet, as advanced as our modern transportation technology has become, we still feel the need to keep using a very old, very expensive, very inefficient method like hot air balloons, not because we need to, but because we want to. How funny.
Like vinyl records, black and white photography, black powder hunting rifles, printed books, and wristwatches, many technological inventions are still used today despite being totally outmoded and despite the availability of more efficient, less expensive options. In fact, as of last year, typewriters are making a comeback, and print book sales actually increased while eBook sales dropped.
While I still have a few vinyl records in a box in my basement, I don’t have a record player anymore, and I sold my black and white photography and darkroom gear over a decade ago. But the hot air balloon was—and still is—intriguing to me.
So, a few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised with the opportunity to ride in a hot air balloon, and it happened in the most unexpected way.
I was working for a company in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The company had been a long-time sponsor of an annual event held every Labor Day, which (at the time) was called the “Colorado Balloon Classic.” (The event is still held today, but it’s run by a different organization and is now called the “Labor Day Liftoff.”)
As an event sponsor, the company was able to place a banner bearing their name on one of the hot air balloons. They also received two tickets to ride on the sponsored balloon. The year I went, I was a relatively new hire, and the company had just been sold to a new owner. He was impressed with the job I had done, so as a reward, he gave me the tickets. I asked my wife if she wanted to join me, and of course, she was surprised at such a random gift, but was happy to accept. Riding a hot air balloon had been on her bucket list for a long time as well.
How was our experience? Well, it was unlike anything I’d done in life up to that point. I’ll explain how it went in two ways: first, a basic timeline and summary, then I’ll fill in some details and give a deeper analysis.
Basic Timeline of the Trip
After initially hearing about the opportunity, and accepting the tickets, I found out that it wouldn’t be as simple as just driving up to the balloon on Labor Day and stepping into a basket and floating away. It was much more complicated than I expected.
A few days before the event, I was required to go to a lunch meeting to learn about how it all works. A speaker explained the rules on where to park, how early to show up, how long it would take, what to expect while we were in the air, and how weather conditions could delay or even cancel the liftoff, and more.
I met Buzz, our pilot, who told me where he would be on the big grassy field that day. He gave me info on his balloon, his experience, and so on. Buzz was a veteran hot air balloon pilot: he had flown them for 35 years. He told me his balloon was called the “Second Wind,” and it was called that because it was his “second” balloon, which replaced his first balloon, the “Amarillo Drifter.” (Note: I didn’t ask what happened to the Amarillo Drifter, but I was sure hoping it hadn’t crashed!)
I was given a liability waiver that my wife and I would have to sign in order to ride, and let me tell you: that is one liability waiver you want to read carefully! I had to agree that I understood that hot air balloon flying is an inherently dangerous activity and that the pilot has very little control over many aspects of the ride, especially landing.
In fact, it explicitly stated: “under normal landing conditions, bruises and/or abrasions are not unusual” and “when landing, it is not unusual for the basket to tip on its side, subjecting the passengers to physical contact with each other or the sides of the basket.” Seriously: when’s the last time you signed a disclaimer like that?
It got worse, actually: it stated that I would hold everyone harmless in the event of “bodily injury or even death.” All of these, I expected to some extent. One clause I wasn’t expecting at all said that I would agree to release them from liability if I landed on private property, which could “lead to arrest for trespassing or other violations.” I’ve certainly never seen verbiage like that in a contract that I’ve signed before! Despite the scary language, I took a chance and signed the waiver.
Saturday morning, the day of the event, we arrived at 6:15 am and walked out onto the huge grass field and found our “balloon team.”
We put on some leather gloves and helped unload the parts of the balloon from the trailer. It took several people to lift the big basket (also called a ‘gondola’) from the trailer, and we laid it on its side. The team attached a big metal burner to the top, as we set to work tying all the ropes from the basket to the “envelope” (which is the actual “balloon” part of a hot air balloon).
The envelope was made of nylon, so when we unrolled it and spread it out flat on the ground, it looked like a massive tent that we had pulled out of the biggest “stuff sack” I had ever seen. It took at least seven adults to open it up, spread it out, and hold it open to fill it with air.
The pilot turned on a massive industrial fan, while I held open the “throat” to let the air in. Once it started filling, he also fired up the burner and shot a giant flame into the envelope, and it began to expand and lift. (By the way, those gas burners are LOUD! Much louder than I would have expected. We had to yell at each other over the sound of the burners both on the ground, and during our flight).
When it was about a third of the way full, Buzz turned off the burners, made sure the fan was doing its work, and walked inside it, I assume, to inspect the fabric and make sure there weren’t any holes in it. Surprisingly, he then invited me and my wife to come inside and walk around it. It was totally surreal standing inside a hot air balloon envelope, looking up and around at this giant bag of hot air.
When the envelope was almost full of air, the team turned the burners back on, and the basket righted itself. It was now completely off the ground, and looked like it was ready to start flying away. Several people held the basket down as we climbed aboard.
Then, when it was time to go, the pilot blasted more gas, and we lifted…. up! We floated above the lake by the park, the trees surrounding the lake, a parking lot, a bunch of power lines, a highway overpass, and, then, just as the ride was starting to get interesting, we began our descent and landed.
For some reason I couldn’t understand at the time, and still don’t understand to this day, our pilot, in his judgment, decided that we needed to land. I didn’t have a stopwatch on, but if I had to guess, I’d say we had maybe 6 or 7 minutes aloft.
This was kind of—no pun intended—the low point of the event. After all the planning and preparation, it was over! We landed in a stranger’s front yard, a mile and a half from where we lifted off. Our ground crew came, helped us out of the basket, then we deflated the balloon, rolled it all up and packed into the trailer.
We then hopped into the truck and headed back to a gazebo in the park near the place where we lifted off. My wife and I were given a lapel pin of our balloon, and bright highlighter-yellow t-shirts that said “Second Wind Hot Air Balloon Team” on them, and a little business card with “The Balloonist’s Prayer” printed on the back.
They told us it was time to have the traditional champagne toast to celebrate a successful flight. We removed our hats, then got down on our hands and knees, in devout reverence as the prayer was recited.
The Balloonist’s Prayer
“The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back into the loving arms of mother earth.”
Two small cups were placed on the ground (mine had champagne, my wife’s had soda, since she doesn’t drink), and they asked us to pick up the cups with our mouths and drink without using our hands. As we were leaning down to pick up the cups with our mouths, we were shocked when ice-cold water was poured on our heads by the crew!
I was confused, and humiliated and angry as everyone laughed while I rose, wiping the water off my face… but after a few seconds, I calmed down and realized that we had just been pranked. Apparently, this is a tradition (at least in some circles) for first-time riders.
I almost couldn’t believe that this was real tradition, but, funny enough, just a few minutes later, I walked over to the gazebo next to ours where I saw another balloon team “initiating” their riders.
Coincidentally, I noticed that the riders, who were about to have an ice-cold surprise, were a couple I actually knew, so I quietly stood watching their initiation ritual, taking pictures and laughing at them as they experienced the same humiliating tradition that I just gone through. This made me feel much better, and then I knew for sure that I hadn’t been singled out.
Afterward, we all talked for a while, I got dried off, and then went home. It was still morning: it wasn’t even 10:00 am on a Saturday, so the day had just barely started.
And that’s it. That’s the end of my story.
Okay, okay, that’s not it: that was just a basic summary. Next, I’ll explain a few parts of the trip in more detail, and share seven things I learned about riding in a hot air balloon, and about hot air balloons in general. Okay, so, I explained what happened, and when. But there are a lot of details I left out that you might find interesting. I’ll elaborate on those now.
First of all, I did have a good time, and it was fun to make a memory with my wife doing something not everyone gets to do. Second, most importantly, I was very thankful that I didn’t have to pay for it. Third, it was a total surprise. Since this was a gift, it wasn’t anything I was planning, so it was just something fun that came along unexpectedly. My expectations were very low.
Having said that… it was a somewhat complicated experience. I had a good time on the ride itself and was happy to finally be able to check “ride a hot air balloon” off my bucket list, but the ending was just… disappointing. I talked to the pilot afterward about it a little bit, and he did give me some info on why and how our flight ended up the way it did. A lot of that has to do with how hot air balloons work.
7 Lessons I Learned About Hot Air Balloons
So, based on that (and some research I did after the flight), here are seven things I learned about taking a ride, up in the air, in a basket, attached to a balloon.
Lesson 1: Hot Air Balloons are old… much older than you might guess.
Get this: the hot air balloon is one of the oldest forms of mechanized transportation. It was invented by the Montgolfier Brothers in France in 1783. That’s over 30 years before the first truly functional bicycle was invented. And it really hasn’t changed much even centuries later.
Hot air balloons still use hot air heated by fire, and the baskets are still, literally made out of wicker and cane. The envelope isn’t made of any special space-age material: it’s nylon just like jogging pants. So, consider this: you’re floating in a giant picnic basket, made of wood, under a huge flying tent, and you’re being propelled by a flaming ball of fire lit by gas. How crazy is that?
Also, did I mention that you can smell the propane burning as you fly? It’s a really strong scent, and made me woozy, so I tried to turn away from it, and breathe in the fresh air, but since it burns the entire flight, it’s kind of just a necessary evil.
Okay, on a total side note: what’s most surprising about this is if you look at the timeline of human flight, the Wright Brothers flew their first airplane in 1903, and Neil Armstrong successfully landed a rocket on the moon in 1969. That means humans went from the very first sustained airplane flight EVER, with a distance of 852 feet, to flying all the way to the moon (238,000 miles away from earth) in just 66 years!
Yet, here we are, in the 21st century, still using the essentially unchanged method of flying balloons—the very first method ever created. Why do I bring that up? Good question; it leads me to my next point.
Lesson 2: When riding a hot air balloon, you can’t steer, at all.
Unlike a sailing vessel, which is powered by the wind but has a rudder and sails that can be maneuvered to steer the ship where you want it to go, a hot air balloon pilot can’t “steer” the craft, at all.
The only control a pilot has is to rise or drop in altitude and hope the wind currents blow you in the right direction. There’s no rudder, sails, motor, keel, or anything else: your controls are up or down. That’s it. That’s part of the reason hot air balloons are typically launched at sunrise: in addition to being a beautiful time to be in the sky, the winds tend to be calmer then, which is what you want.
Now, as you might imagine, being at the mercy of the wind presents some unknown variables when you lift off. Of course, you have a general idea of where you might want to go, but until you get into the basket and the air takes over, there’s no telling where you’ll end up. In the case of our flight, I did some measuring using a map and GPS after the trip and found that we went 1.53 miles (as the crow flies), heading south by southeast. But according to our pilot, he flew his balloon at the same event the previous year, and, on that trip, they landed at the Air Force Academy, which is 9.85 miles north! Same craft, same pilot, same day of the year; entirely different direction. So with an inability to steer, you may wonder how they can pick their landing spot.
Lesson 3: A hot air balloon will land wherever it chooses to land.
Remember that waiver I mentioned signing a few days before the ride? And how it stated there was a potential for trespassing? There’s a reason they put that in the legalese. A hot air balloon will land where and when it wants to, and there’s very little a pilot can do about it.
Have you ever seen the movie “The Great Muppet Caper?” During the opening credits of the film, Kermit the Frog, Fozzy, and Gonzo are all flying in a hot air balloon. The movie then begins with a thud, as they touch down right in the middle of an intersection. Taxis and bystanders stop and watch the balloon deflate and see if they can catch a glimpse of the strange people who just dropped into their lives, right in the middle of the road. Even though that is a scene from a movie, a real hot air balloon landing is exactly like that.
In our case, we landed in someone’s front yard, right on top of a bush, squashing it. I felt awkward about that, especially when the homeowners opened their front door and walked out to meet us. They were very kind and accommodating. They took pictures, and even made us coffee!
Others have not been so fortunate. For example, when our pilot landed the year before at the Air Force Academy, they actually landed on the airstrip. The Air Force was not happy about this, and the balloonists were greeted by angry guards carrying big guns. They didn’t get arrested, but still… I’m sure nobody was expecting that for their landing!
Lesson 4: You have to pack up the balloon where it lands, but you don’t know where that will be.
This part was really funny to me. Remember how I said it took seven adults to set up and launch the balloon? Well, when we landed, there were just three of us: myself, my wife, and the pilot. So we had to wait for the rest of our team to show up with the truck and trailer to put it away.
Question: how does the ground crew know where to go? Answer: they don’t!
They have to drive around town looking up in the sky trying to see where you are, and where they think you’re going. The vehicle they drive is literally called a “chase vehicle,” and it takes two adults: one person drives, and the other looks up at the sky and acts as a navigator, telling the driver, “It looks like they’re headed south near the Hancock Expressway; turn right!” It’s much less exact then you’d imagine, plus, when the balloon lands and deflates, there’s no way to see it anymore from the chase vehicle, so it’s hard for them to locate you if they haven’t actually seen you land.
Lesson 5: As ancient as hot air balloons are, they’re actually considered “aircraft” by the FAA.
They have to be flown by licensed pilots that have passed a test and have training, experience, insurance, and no serious medical issues. The balloons themselves have safety standards and have to be maintained and inspected annually.
This is important because, as I mentioned before, a pilot has very little control, and, in fact, sometimes people die while riding on hot air balloons. Sometimes they crash into power lines, or sometimes, the entire balloon catches on fire. Overall, though, it’s considered very safe when compared to other transportation methods.
Another interesting part of this is just how expensive they are: I’ve seen estimates that say a hot air balloon can cost between $20,000 and $60,000 or more. So while there aren’t any moving parts like jets or propellers, the costs are definitely up there, just like other aircraft.
Lesson 6: Taking off is quite a spectacle, and people everywhere are watching you.
It’s a bit awkward to feel like the center of attention, and when you’re lifting off, everybody around you is watching and looking up at you. If you have friends or family on the ground they’ll wave at you, and as you wave back, it’s almost embarrassing: you feel like you’re in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or Grease, where everyone on the ground is smiling and waving as you float away into the sky in a flying car.
The cool thing about riding a balloon at a festival like we did, though, is that there are lots of hot air balloons lifting off all at the same time. It looks like a big giant has blown on an enormous dandelion, and the balloons are the little seeds dispersing across the land.
Lesson 7: The ride in a hot air balloon is actually very smooth and very stable
This was, by far, the most surprising part of this trip. If you’re afraid of heights, like I am, you might be nervous at how scary the thought is to float high off the ground, swinging back and forth in the air. But here’s the thing: from the second you lift off the ground, you just notice how smooth the ride is. It’s not like standing on a wobbly diving board or really tall ladder, where you have a genuine feeling that you’re going to fall off, and die, especially if the wind starts blowing.
In contrast, a balloon is just different. Because you’re moving with the wind, it’s a remarkably calm feeling. With an airplane, for example, your engine may be pushing you into or against the wind, and it may make you rise or fall due to turbulence. But at least in my experience, because a balloon moves in perfect sync with the wind, it felt very sturdy and solid the whole time.
In all, it was a great experience, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to fly in a hot air balloon. And even though I’ve done it now, I’m still keeping it on my list of things to try. This initial trip was so short and had a disappointing ending, I’d like to give it another try someday and see if we can stay in the air longer.
If you get a chance to ride in a hot air balloon, I highly recommend you do. But even if you can’t ride in one, just check out a balloon festival or a launch. It’s fun to just watch the process unfold, and if you’re on the ground at a festival, you can walk around and see all the various balloons that come from different locations. They have different shapes, size, colors, designs, and some of them are really creative—many are quite different than the standard upside-down teardrop shape you’re used to seeing.
Another bonus: a lot of festivals are free. Just show up and see how it goes! And many times, the balloon teams will stay until the evening, and put on what they call a “balloon glow,” where they keep the balloons tethered to the ground, but light them up so you can walk around and see them glow like giant paper lanterns.
Also, during a balloon glow, sometimes you can actually ride on them, while they’re still tethered, so you go up in the air, about 75 feet or so, and then come right back down, and have a small taste of a hot air balloon ride, and get a great night view of your city.
So count me a fan of hot air balloons, and I guarantee you, someday, I’ll give it another shot.