Chase the Blue Dot
The inside of the balloon. The team invited me to get a closer look.

New Mexico: Balloon Fiesta frequently asked questions

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According to the Balloon Fiesta, these are some of the most common frequently asked questions about hot air and gas balloons.

  • WHAT ARE HOT AIR BALLOONS MADE OF?
    The envelope is made of a reinforced fabric called rip-stop nylon. Polyester and other fabrics are sometimes used. The materials are very lightweight and very strong. The fabric is coated on the inside to prevent leaks. The fabric used at the lower portion of the balloon is a fire-resistant material like Nomex, which is what firemen and race car drivers wear.
  • HOW IS A HOT AIR BALLOON INFLATED?
    During the inflation process, ballooning becomes a group sport. Since a balloon is quite unwieldy on the ground, it takes about four people to get a balloon inflated. To start off, the envelope is stretched out on the ground and attached to the basket, which is lying on its side. A small gasoline-powered fan blows air into the balloon envelope. Then the burner is turned on, and the air in the balloon is heated. The hot air rises, lifting the balloon upright. One of my previous posts, New Mexico: Elephant Butte Balloon Regatta, shows the inflation process of two balloons.
  • WHAT ARE THE BASKETS MADE OF?
    The baskets are usually woven out of wicker since it is strong, lightweight and flexible. Wicker is also very easy to maintain and holds up well under the stress of repeated landings.
  • HOW BIG ARE HOT AIR BALLOONS?
    The typical sport balloon ranges in size from 65,000 to 105,000 cubic feet in volume, and when inflated stands around 70 feet tall (or equivalent in height to a building with seven floors).
  • HOW DO BALLOONS FLY?
    Hot air balloons fly because hot air rises. When the pilot heats the air inside the envelope, it becomes lighter than the air around the envelope and floats up into the sky. The pilot can control the balloon’s altitude by adjusting the temperature of the air inside the envelope. To make the balloon come down, the air inside the balloon is allowed to cool. To climb, more heat from the propane burner is added, increasing lift.
  • HOW DO YOU STEER THE THING?
    Strictly speaking, you don’t. The balloon goes where the wind takes it. However, the winds at varying altitudes may blow in different directions and at different speeds, so the trick is to climb or descend to an altitude where the wind is blowing the direction you want to go.
  • HOW FAST DOES A BALLOON GO?
    As fast, or as slow, as the wind. Since the balloon has no forward propulsion system, its speed is determined entirely by the speed of the wind. That’s why balloon races are events of accuracy, not speed.
  • WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO FLY A HOT AIR BALLOON?
    Conditions are usually the best just after sunrise and one or two hours before sunset. This is the time of day when winds are calmest and the air most stable.
  • HOW HIGH DO HOT AIR BALLOONS FLY?
    Most balloon flights occur between 500 and 2,000 feet above the ground. But balloons can fly at treetop level or go much higher. The world record for altitude in a hot air balloon is 65,000 feet.
  • HOW LONG CAN A HOT AIR BALLOON STAY UP?
    It depends. Normally, the balloon carries enough fuel to remain aloft for two hours, but factors like outside air temperature, weight being carried in the basket, and weather determine the duration of the flight.
  • WHAT KIND OF FUEL IS USED FOR A HOT AIR BALLOON?
    Propane is the most common fuel, but butane is sometimes used in remote areas where propane is not available. The fuel is carried in aluminum or stainless-steel tanks that range from 10 – 25 gallons in size. The average fuel consumption for a sport size balloon is about 15 gallons an hour.
  • HOW DO YOU GET THE BALLOON BACK?
    With the help of friends who drive a van or pickup truck. This chase crew is usually in contact with the pilot by means of two way radios and follows the flight of the balloon (as well as the existing roads allow) and should be on hand to make the recovery when the balloon touches down.
  • WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A GAS BALLOON AND A HOT AIR BALLOON?
    A gas balloon is completely enclosed and is filled with helium or hydrogen gas. A hot air balloon gets its lift from heating the air within. Hot air balloon flights usually last about an hour, while gas balloon flights can last for days. Gas balloon flights require much more preparation for cold weather, high altitudes, and flying at night. Gas balloonists also pack enough food and water for several days.

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