The Business of Ballooning

Whether for fun or money,
this sport has its rewards

Area hot air balloon pilots find solace
aboard gentle giants

By Don Ward

How do hot air
balloons fly?

Courtesy of www.hotairballooning.com

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.
It’s a very basic principle: Hot air rises and cold air sinks. So while the super-cooled air in your grocer’s 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 passenger’s 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 doesn’t know where the balloon will land ahead of time, but that doesn’t mean he can’t control the landing.
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 can’t 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 direction.
During the flight the balloon is followed by the chase crew. The chase crew is usually in radio contact with the pilot, and the crew’s 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 someone’s land every time they take off and land, so we they careful not to disturb or damage someone’s 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 flight.

Hot air ballooning

• How do you steer a balloon? Balloons simply float with the wind. The pilot can control the balloon’s 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 don’t 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 isn’t 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 flying only.
• 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.

2005 October Cover
2005 October
Edition Cover

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 balloonist’s worst enemy.
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 touchdown.
Our basket bounced a few times along the grassy field before coming to a stop and gently tipping over. I hopped out.

2005 October Cover

Photo by Don Ward

Gentle 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 don’t 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.
“It’s 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 pilot’s license, which means he can charge customers for rides, and he can charge companies to put their name on his balloons. He’s flown for such companies as People’s State Bank, Damon’s 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 Ribberfest competition.
“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 he’s 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. “It’s not a full-time job, but it’s a full-time hobby.”
Vencel also is vice president of the Montgolfier Society of Indiana, the state’s hot air ballooning club.
Like many other balloonists in Indiana and Kentucky, in early October Vencel is heading to the world’s 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 weekend’s activities. And balloonists are more than happy to oblige them.

Balloon Taking Off

Photo by Don Ward

A balloon prepares
to lift off Aug. 13
at Shawe Memorial
High School
in Madison, Ind.

“It’s 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 pilot’s license for two years, but he already owns two balloons. “My first one was getting a little worn, so I decided it was time to upgrade.”
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 my license.”
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 pilot’s test so he can fly commercially for his friend, Frank McCrory, who owns several balloons sporting company names in the Scottsburg area.
Toby’s family and friends serve as his chase crew. “That’s how they earn their rides; the more you work, the more you ride,” he joked.
Toby noted the family friendly aspect of the sport and said it generates many friendships.
“You hardly ever just see one balloon in the air; it’s 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 client’s 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 Vencel’s 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 said.

Two Balloons Landing

Photo by Don Ward

Two 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 friends.”

Unfurling Balloon

Photos by Don Ward

Tom Steinbock (center) of Crestwood, Ky.,
unfurls his balloon with the help of
(from left) John Seitz, Jeff Sizemore
and Jessica Sizemore.

Steinbock’s wife, Lisa, has frequently flown with him or served as his chase person. She says she also enjoys flying but added, “It’s really Tom’s passion, not mine. I’m a balloon widow.”
An interior designer, Lisa describes a balloon flight by saying, “It’s very peaceful; a tranquil experience and very quiet. And the scenery you see is just beautiful. There’s really no sense of height with it – just floating when you’re up there.”
She says neither words nor pictures do justice to what it is really like. “It’s 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 or www.balloonindiana.com.

Back to October 2005 Articles.



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