A balloon flies because the air inside the envelope is hotter than the air outside. The burners heat the air inside to ascend and if you want to descend, the pilot will let the air inside the envelope cool or open the top vent to let some air out.
Winds of 5-10 mph are ideal for takeoff and landing. Once in the air the balloon can travel at much faster speeds. I personally have flown at 75 mph. Inflation is very critical not to burn or melt the envelope. Balloons can only be flown in VFR (Visual Fight Rules). These are conditions where you can see at least 10 miles. It is important to look at weather 200 miles away. That weather may impact you here. We can only fly when the sun is up, from sunup to sundown. Typically balloon flights take place at sunup and sundown because the winds are usually the calmest.
Records have been set for distance, duration, altitude, or other types. They can be personal or for an organization. On November 26, 2005, Indian Vijaypat Singhania set an altitude record of 69,852 feet. Also balloons have been flown around the world.
Some call them Chase Crew, I call them the Ground Team. Chase Crew can imply crew that only reacts and does not anticipate. Ground Team gives an indication that they are thinking as the pilot thinks. Either way, the people that help the pilot are integral to the success of the flight. Without the team the pilot doesn't fly. The team should be cross trained in all aspects of crewing, the more they know the better they will be. A well trained team is capable of working with little or no instruction. But if you have never crew, don't be intimidated. Virtually anyone can learn to crew. Many times I will have new crew and they perform wonderfully. Of course the proper instruction by the pilot is very importation.
The pilot is responsible for the operation of the aircraft, but the pilot is also responsible for the actions of the ground team. Their actions represent the pilot and ballooning in general. If you are ground team, remember that you are a very important public relation element of ballooning. Even if you are just a beginner team member, you will be viewed as a knowledgeable member of the ballooning community. Crewing does not come without the occasional sore muscles or mosquito bites. The memories out weigh the bites. A pilot should appreciate the crew.
Planning for a flight starts with good weather information. A pilot who is improperly briefed on the weather can have a disastrous flight. Weather information can be gathered from many sources such as, web sites, national weather service, flight service, local TV, and using your gut feeling is also important.
Once you have decided to fly, the crew needs to be lined up and a capable driver is very valuable. When deciding on passengers, the payload needs to be calculated based on the aircraft limitations and the outside or ambient temperature. The flight path must be determined. Because balloons flow with the winds, a pilot does not want to fly into an area that could be troublesome. Knowing your air space is vitally important. Are your radios and GPS's charged and operational. Do you have a sectional map as well as a local map of the area you are flying in. Cameras are a must have so photos during the flight can be taken of the incredible views you will experience. Aero medical factors are also important. How are you as a pilot physically and emotionally. Are you able to fly and are you wearing the proper clothing.
The Envelope (the brightly colored part made of either nylon or polyester and holds air). It is constructed from long sections called gores which extend from the base all the way up to the top and are made of many panels. The material is the same as used in parachutes, is very tightly woven and coated to keep it non-porous. The bottom part of the envelope is referred to as either the skirt (material that extends completely around), or a scoop (it only goes half way around).
The basket or gondola, is the part of the balloon that carries the passengers, pilot, and propane tanks. Baskets can carry anywhere from 1-30 passengers. Wicker is widely used because of it's flexibility and usually have a wooden floor.
The burner is the engine of the aircraft. Smaller balloons have one and the larger they are the more burners needed. Some have as many as 4. Propane is the fuel used in the United States although a propane butane mixture can be used although it is less efficient.
The required instruments area Pyrometer-temperature gauge, altimeter-tells your height in the air, variometer-tells your speed of ascent or descent.
These are balloon manufacturers: Avian Ballooning Corp (USA), Ballonau WArner (Germany), Cameron Balloons (UK & USA), Firefly Balloons (USA), Head Balloons (USA),
Kavanagh Balloons (Australia), Kubicek Balloons (Czech), Lindstrand Balloons (UK & USA),
National Balloons (USA), Ultramagic Balloons (Spain), among a few others. Each company may have regional dealers.
A balloon pilot does need a license to fly a balloon. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) administers regulations for aircrafts and pilots. A pilot must abide by these regulations to fly any type of aircraft. Aircrafts are divided into categories, Fixed Wing, Rotary, Lighter Than Air, Powered Lift, Glider Powered Parachute. Fixed wing is all planes, Rotary is helicopters, Lighter Than Air is airships and balloons. Under each category of aircraft is different class of aircraft. In fixed wing category you can have, single engine land, multi engine land, single engine sea just to name a few. In Lighter Than Air category, you have airship class (ie. blimps) and balloon class. The balloon class has 3 main types of balloons, hot air, gas and roziere. Gas balloons can use many types of gas for lift and will fly long distances. Roziere balloons use a combination of gas and hot air and are most commonly used for distance record flights. Hot Air balloons use only hot air to achieve lift. You can be a student pilot at age 14 and become a pilot at age 16. First you become a student pilot. During the training you must complete 10 instructional flights including 2 solo flights, ground school, written FAA private pilots test. Once all of the training is successfully completed, you are ready for your check ride given to you by a designated flight examiner. This flight exam consists of a oral and practical exam. At this point you will have obtained your LTA Private Pilot Certificate for hot air balloons only. The next level is a commercial pilot. After receiving your private license, you must continue to fly 35 more hours as the PIC (Pilot In Command) before beginning your commercial license training. Commercial training consists of 10 instructional training, ground school, FAA written commercial pilots test. Once this is completed you are ready for your commercial check ride which consists of an oral and practical exam. The distinction between private and commercial license is this. A private pilot can not be used for hire but can fly unpaid passengers. A commercial can fly for hire. That means as a commercial you can fly paid passengers, and be compensated for your work as a hot air balloon pilot. You also are now a flight instructor and can train pilots working on both private and commercial certificates. A medical exam is not required to have a hot air balloon pilot certificate. Every 2 years you will be required to fly a biannual flight review which can be given by any commercial pilot.
All pilots should have multiple check lists for flight operations. These lists should include the following; pre-flight, inflation, pre-launch, in-flight, navigation and performance maneuvers, approach and landing, recovery and pack-up, refueling, emergency.
Pre-flight, weather briefings, launch site selection, crew & passenger briefing, payload planning, fuel planning, landing site expectations.
Inflation, layout and assembly, aircraft inspection, proper inflation procedures.
Pre-launch, temperature check, equipment and maps on board, fuel check, passengers on board, obstacle check.
In-flight, #1 priority is to fly the aircraft, fuel management, obstacle avoidance, landing site evaluation.
Navigation & Performance Maneuvers, know your flight objectives, understand winds and where they will take you, use this to your advantage, ascents, descents, contour flying.
Approach & Landing, inform crew you are landing, landing site, approaches (gradual glide path or steep glide path), passenger briefing, landing abort plan, secure equipment, normal landing, drop line landing, high wind landing.
Recovery & Pack-up, shut off fuel, laying down the envelope, deflation & disassembly, cleaning up your landing site, thank the land owner. Maintaining good landowner relations are very important. Remember that you are trespassing, so if a pilot does not respect the landowners property, it look very badly on the pilot and ballooning in general.
Refueling, always use safety procedures, respect propane.
Emergency, a pilot should practice emergency procedures on the ground, always review how you as a pilot will deal with a emergency.