Business of Ballooning
for fun or money,
this sport has its rewards
hot air balloon pilots find solace
aboard gentle giants
do hot air
Have you ever wondered what keeps a hot air balloon flying?
The same principle that keeps food frozen in the open chest
freezers at the grocery store allows hot air balloons to fly.
Its a very basic principle: Hot air rises and cold air
sinks. So while the super-cooled air in your grocers freezer
settles down around the food, the hot air in a hot air balloon
pushes up, keeping the balloon floating.
A hot air balloon has three major parts: the envelope, the burner,
and the basket.
The basket is where passengers ride. Usually made of wicker,
baskets protect the occupants and are lightweight and flexible.
The burner is positioned above the passengers heads and
produces a huge flame to heat the air inside the envelope.
The envelope is the colorful fabric bag that holds the hot air.
When the air inside the envelope is heated, the balloon rises.
To descend, the pilot allows the air to cool and the balloon
becomes heavier than air. The pilot has complete control of
the up-and-down movements by controlling the heat in the envelope.
Once airborne, balloons just float with the wind. It is true
that the pilot doesnt know where the balloon will land
ahead of time, but that doesnt mean he cant control
Before the balloon is launched, the pilot knows which way the
wind is blowing so he knows which way the balloon will go. The
air is in layers, and the different layers may be moving in
different directions. So even though the pilot cant steer
the balloon, he can move up and down to find a layer of air
that will allow the balloon to change direction.
Some days the amount of change is very small; other days the
balloon may be able to actually turn around and fly in the opposite
During the flight the balloon is followed by the chase crew.
The chase crew is usually in radio contact with the pilot, and
the crews job is to be at the landing site when the balloon
touches down. This can be quite an adventure in itself.
After the balloon lands, the crew packs the balloon back into
the chase vehicle and everyone returns to the launch site.
One of the most important parts of being on a chase crew is
dealing with the public. When the balloon is landing, the chase
crew asks the landowner for permission to retrieve the balloon.
Balloon pilots are borrowing someones land every time
they take off and land, so we they careful not to disturb or
damage someones property. A courteous balloon pilot will
thank the landowner, and by the time the crew is leaving the
landing site, most balloonists are already planning their next
How do you steer a balloon? Balloons simply float with the
wind. The pilot can control the balloons altitude to find
a wind going in the desired direction, but he cannot fly upwind
or crosswind. Preflight planning insures the pilot knows which
way the balloon will be traveling, and the pilot makes sure there
are plenty of suitable landing sites downwind.
How long does it take to inflate and deflate the balloon?
A good ground crew can inflate and launch a balloon in 15 minutes
or less. It takes about the same amount of time to deflate and
pack up the balloon after the flight.
Why dont balloons fly in the middle of the day?
Balloons fly early in the morning, right after sunrise and late
in the day, right before sunset. This is when the wind is calmest
since the sun is low in the sky.
Why is the angle of the sun important? The sun is
the source of wind, because it heats the earth unevenly. Sunlight
falls directly on the equator, for example. The North Pole receives
weaker, slanted rays of sunlight. Clouds may keep one area cool
while another heats up. Water and land heat up at different rates.
Hot air is lighter than cool air, so it rises. As hot air rises,
cool air slides in to replace it. The result: wind. It isnt
safe to fly during the daytime when different pockets of air are
rising and falling.
Can balloons fly at night? Yes, although balloonists
seldom do because of decreased visibility and the requirement
for instruments and lights. Most balloons are certified for day
How much do balloons cost? About the same as a car
or boat. The most popular sport size balloons cost from $18,000
to $25,000 or more. Support equipment (radios, fan, extra tanks,
tools, repair kit, etc.) adds from $2,000 to $5,000 more. You
can also buy used balloons.
What are envelopes made of? Rip-stop nylon is the
most common material. Polyester and other fabrics are sometimes
used. The lower portions around the opening are usually made from
a fire resistant material like Nomex, similar to what race car
drivers and firemen wear.
What fuel do hot air balloons use, and where is it carried?
Propane is used for fuel. It is carried in aluminum or stainless
steel tanks that range from 10 to 20 gallons in size. Average
fuel consumption is about 15 gallons an hour.
How long do balloons last? Depending on the care
it is given, a balloon envelope may last 500 or more flying hours.
Considering that most sport pilots fly from 35-75 hours a year,
balloons do last a long time.
What is a balloon basket made of? Woven wicker is
used because it is lightweight, flexible and easily repaired.
What happens if a bird flys into a balloon? It would
likely bounce off. The envelope fabric is much tougher than it
might appear. It is possible to fly a balloon with a hole large
enough for a man to go through as long as the hole is not at the
top of the envelope.
How do you light the burners? Usually with a striker
similar to that used by welders to light their welding torches.
Some burners have built-in piezo-electric ignitors. Once lit,
a pilot light keeps the fuel burning.
What are the ropes for? The crown line on top of
the balloon is used to stabilize the balloon during inflation.
Tether lines are used to tie the balloon down for
display purposes. A drop line is sometimes released
by the pilot just before landing so the ground crew can pull the
balloon to a desired location.
Do you need a license to fly a balloon? Yes. A Balloon
Pilot Certificate is issued by the FAA in the United States. You
must pass an FAA written exam, obtain a prescribed number of hours
of instruction, make a solo flight, a flight to a specific altitude
and pass a flight test.
How old do you have to be to fly a balloon? To obtain
a Private Pilot Certificate in the United States, you must be
16 years old.
Courtesy of www.hotairballooning.com.
(October 2005) A loud hum broke the silence of
the foggy, mid-August morning in Madison, Ind., when Tom Steinbock turned
on the large fan that he had strategically aimed into the opening of
his deflated hot air balloon. The air rushed into the balloon, slowly
giving it shape.
Little by little, the balloon lifted off the dew-covered grass in the
back yard of the North Madison United Methodist Church. Even though
it was 7 a.m. on a Saturday, surprisingly the loud hum did not cause
anyone to emerge from the rows of houses on either side of Taylor Street.
As his team of helpers stretched out the colorful envelope,
Steinbock began lighting small bursts of propane into the balloon. The
team sat the wicker basket upright. Steinbock, a construction worker
from Crestwood, Ky., gave the propane one more blast, then said, Time
to get in.
I lifted one leg, then another into the basket and slid into place.
Steinbock crawled in, keeping one hand near the propane controls above
his head. His team held on until Steinbock gave them the final command
to let go.
We began to ascend slowly into the air, rising above the trees and houses
and the church. The propane blasts lifted us higher into the skies above
Madison and the wind carried us northeast toward Clifty Drive. Not one
person witnessed our departure. Even the chase team in the van down
below made a clean getaway on that quiet, sleepy morning.
Other than the occasional propane blast and our own voices, the ride
aboard the wicker basket was silent. We glided effortlessly parallel
to Clifty Drive, over Anderson Elementary School, Miles Ridge subdivision,
Staples and Wal-Mart, then out toward our first designated target drop
at the North Madison Christian Church on Hwy. 62. Our balloon drifted
too far right of the target area to make a good throw of the bean bag,
so on we sailed eastward over Cozy Acres Golf Course and eventually
above a foggy ravine that led south down toward the Ohio River. We spotted
several deer in some of the fields below.
Behind us on the horizon were dozens of colorful balloons in hot pursuit
as part of the Madison Ribberfest Hare and Hound Competition. Each one
had taken off at a different location on the Madison hilltop in an attempt
to fly their balloon over the predetermined target areas.
As we drifted over one farm, the cattle below us ran frantically around
in circles, obviously startled. Not one person was outside of their
homes that early in the morning as we passed overhead.
About 20 minutes into the flight, we approached our second target area,
but again we sailed too far to make a good throw then more
woods and farmland until finally we saw some open fields on the ridge
up ahead near the Canaan water tower. Steinbock decided one field would
make a good landing area. He stayed in constant communication by radio
with his chase team below, who trailed in a van. During the flight,
he also made sure to stay clear of any powerlines a balloonists
Steinbock gave his team final instructions on where he was about to
land. Once the team had us in their sights, he slowly began our descent.
Hang on tight, Steinbock warned in the final minutes before
Our basket bounced a few times along the grassy field before coming
to a stop and gently tipping over. I hopped out.
by Don Ward
Giants in flight.
Steinbock also exited the basket and began deflating the
envelope. Within minutes, the chase team arrived, and soon we were all
working to mash the air out of the balloon, roll it up and stash it
back into the van.
As we packed up, about a dozen other hot air balloons started landing
in the fields all around us. The landowners and their neighbors came
out to watch in amazement as these colorful balloons sat down. Some
of their neighbors soon joined them.
The entire adventure, from the initial pilots meeting at 6:30
a.m. along the riverbank in Milton, Ky., until our arrival back at the
riverfront at 8:30 a.m. took only two hours.
Hot air ballooning has become a growing pastime for private
and commercial pilots alike. And you dont have to own a balloon
to be a pilot. Many commercial pilots own several balloons and need
help to fly them at multiple events during the same weekend.
Its definitely an addictive hobby, said Travis Vencel,
39, of Bloomington, Ind.
He had his first hot air balloon ride at age 16. Today, he owns three
balloons but has owned as many as five at one time. As a kid growing
up, for me it was balloons, not fire trucks, he said.
Vencel has a commercial pilots license, which means he can charge
customers for rides, and he can charge companies to put their name on
his balloons. Hes flown for such companies as Peoples State
Bank, Damons restaurants and Jasper Engine & Transmission.
His main balloon today sports the name of the Bloomington Convention
and Visitors Bureau. That is the balloon he brought to Madison for the
I got hooked when Malcolm Forbes brought his hot air balloon to
Bloomington. That was in 1972, said Vencel, a 1989 Hanover College
graduate. Twenty-two years after his first ride in a balloon, Vencel
figures hes flown about 1,400 times. He gives rides to about 150
passengers a year during his 75 or so flights. He charges $195 for one
person and $375 for two. Although he works in real estate for his real
job, he says ballooning is a close second. Its not a full-time
job, but its a full-time hobby.
Vencel also is vice president of the Montgolfier Society of Indiana,
the states hot air ballooning club.
Like many other balloonists in Indiana and Kentucky, in early October
Vencel is heading to the worlds largest balloon event, the Albuquerque
International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico. The annual 10-day festival
attracts more than 800 balloons each year.
Regionally, the largest balloon event is the Adams Matthews Foundation
Balloon Festival, which took place Sept. 23-25 in Louisville. But dozens
of festivals across Indiana and Kentucky have found that a balloon event
adds color and excitement to the weekends activities. And balloonists
are more than happy to oblige them.
by Don Ward
to lift off Aug. 13
at Shawe Memorial
in Madison, Ind.
Its like one big happy family when you consider
all the people you meet in the sport, said Kevin Toby, 31, of
Henryville, Ind., near Scottsburg. The landscaper has only had his private
pilots license for two years, but he already owns two balloons.
My first one was getting a little worn, so I decided it was time
He bought a second used balloon but says with proper care, they can
last for many years.
My uncle flew balloons 20 years ago, and I had always been fascinated
by them. So when I finally got old enough and could afford it, I got
That was in 2003. Today, Toby finds himself wanting to fly more and
more. In fact, in a few weeks he plans to take his commercial pilots
test so he can fly commercially for his friend, Frank McCrory, who owns
several balloons sporting company names in the Scottsburg area.
Tobys family and friends serve as his chase crew. Thats
how they earn their rides; the more you work, the more you ride,
Toby noted the family friendly aspect of the sport and said it generates
You hardly ever just see one balloon in the air; its usually
many balloons all flying at once, he said. So you get to
know a lot of people with the same interest.
Vencel teaches prospective pilots how to fly balloons. I recommend
that they take at least two lessons to see if they like it, then we
go from there, he said.
He charges $150 per hour if taken in the clients balloon and $350
per hour if in his balloon.
Granted, it can be expensive. He has trained only about eight people
over 20 years, he said.
A new pilot needs a minimum of 10 flying hours, but Vencels students
usually have 15 by the time they are ready to take the written and flight
test. Buying that first balloon, however, can range anywhere from $20,000
up to $100,000, depending on the extra accessories and on how elaborate
the shape of the balloon is, said Tom Steinbock, 44, of Crestwood, Ky.
You can buy a cadillac or you can buy a volkswagon, Steinbock
by Don Ward
hot air balloons prepare
to land during the Aug. 13 Madison
Ribberfest Hare and Hound Race.
I relate it to boating you can spend a lot
of money or buy a used one from a friend down the street, said
Vencel. Most balloonists carry a $1 million insurance policy as well,
which runs about $800 a year.
Steinbock has flown his own hot air balloon since 1975, but he caught
the flying bug a lot earlier as a boy growing up next to a neighbor
who flew them. He now flies as a commercial pilot at nearly 20 festivals
a year. Some of his corporate clients include Dairy Queen, Nu Yale Dry
Cleaners, Assumption High School and Bargain Supply. Steinbock belongs
to the Indiana ballooning club but also is a member of the Balloon Society
of Kentucky, which he said is currently undergoing a reorganization.
Steinbock said he enjoys the solitude and freedom that comes with ballooning.
He usually flies low enough to converse with people on the ground. They
always say hi or wave or honk their car horns when they
see us flying over especially when we go over the interstate.
Although balloonists use various types of fuel, Steinbock uses regular
propane, which now costs about $1.80 per gallon. He says the sport is
very safe because we dont go up if the weather is bad.
He has never had a close call and, like all pilots, relies on the generosity
of land owners to get back down to earth.
Generally, people are interested in the balloons and dont
mind us landing on their property, he said. We do everything
we can not to cause any damage to farm crops or property. Usually by
the time we have packed up and are ready to leave, they are our best
by Don Ward
Steinbock (center) of Crestwood, Ky.,
unfurls his balloon with the help of
(from left) John Seitz, Jeff Sizemore
and Jessica Sizemore.
Steinbocks wife, Lisa, has frequently flown with
him or served as his chase person. She says she also enjoys flying but
added, Its really Toms passion, not mine. Im
a balloon widow.
An interior designer, Lisa describes a balloon flight by saying, Its
very peaceful; a tranquil experience and very quiet. And the scenery
you see is just beautiful. Theres really no sense of height with
it just floating when youre up there.
She says neither words nor pictures do justice to what it is really
like. Its really something you have to experience for yourself.
If you have ever wanted to learn more about hot air ballooning or have
considered becoming a pilot, Toby recommends getting to know someone
who flies. Many balloon pilots need help setting up for a flight or
chasing the balloons to their landing sights.
That is a great way to learn about the sport, he said. Who
knows, you might even get a few free rides.
Learn more about hot air ballooning at these websites: www.hotairballooning.com
Back to October 2005