You’re flying 1 km (3,000 ft) above the ground, hanging below a huge tank of burning gas. Yeah, and that tank is now on fire! Will the impending explosion tear you apart? Or will you fall to you own death?
The first successful hot-air balloon flight was manned by the Montgolfier brothers in France in 1783. The balloon reached 2,000 m (6,600 ft) and traveled for 2 km (1.2 miles) in about 10 minutes. Since then, hot-air balloons have been used for many purposes, including war. In World War II, the British Army used barrage balloons to defend England against German attacks. So hot air balloons were more than a tourist attraction.
They fly by heating gas inside the balloon. This makes the balloon lighter than the colder air outside. The gas is heated to 120 °C (250 °F). So, going back to where you find yourself, the balloon could catch fire and burn you alive, or explode and blow you up. Or you could die from falling high out of the sky. So what should you do when things go wrong?
Should you expect a soft landing? How could you avoid hitting trees, power lines, or mountains? In an emergency, how could you land a hot-air balloon?
Step 1: Don’t be stingy
If you’re planning on taking a hot air balloon tour, don’t be stingy. Some companies may offer lower prices but skimp on security measures. Look for companies with a proven safety record, and verify that they follow the government standards in the country you’ll be flying in. Don’t be shy. Ask for a copy of the pilot’s license and the company’s insurance statement. Remember, your life will be in their hands.
Step 2: Don’t fool around
You are in a basket hundreds of meters above the ground, hanging from a burning gas tank. This is no time for horseplay. It can distract the pilot, who has to pay close attention to the horizon to avoid power lines and trees. Keep your body inside the basket and hold on to the indicated handles. If the balloon hits a power line, you can get electrocuted. Also, the 90 kg (200 lb) tank of propane gas, can explode. So, behave yourself and enjoy the view.
Step 3: Follow your instincts
A failure in the equipment can cause a fire without warning. In 2013, 20 tourists were enjoying a balloon ride over the Egyptian city of Luxor. A fuel line in the burner broke, setting the balloon on fire. The pilot warned the group to squat, but one man, Michael Rennie, followed his instincts. He watched for a moment when the basket got relatively close to the ground and jumped out. The pilot jumped too, despite his earlier instructions. Seconds later, the balloon took off again and then burst. The other 19 tourists died, including Michael’s wife. Listen to the pilot’s orders, but be prepared to follow your instincts.
Step 4: Take the reins
When they land, hot air balloons don’t settle smoothly in a field. They hit the ground many times before stopping. That’s perhaps the most dangerous moment, as 10 tourists learned on their balloon ride in Nevada in 2019. During the landing, the basket hit the ground so hard that some passengers were ejected, including the pilot. The basket kept bouncing around the field uncontrollably until Tom Stenton took over.
He saw the loose red rope that opens the top of the balloon. So he pulled on it to release the hot air from the balloon. He kept shaking it, again and again. Finally, the balloon stopped. They were 1 km (0.6 miles) from the original crash site. He and many other passengers ended up with broken bones, but all of them survived. So, be prepared to step in and help.
Step 5: Learn to fly
Tom was definitely a hero. But when a hot-air balloon is out of control, you’d want to know how to land the thing. To steer clear of populated areas, and avoid possible collisions. First, breathe and focus. You need to boost the balloon’s altitude. Find the blast valve under the burner. It burns the propane that heats the gas in the balloon, and keeps you up in the air.
Open it for five to 10 seconds, then close the blast valve. If you need to go higher, wait for 10 seconds, and then reopen the valve for another five to 10 seconds. Now you need to find a good place to land, somewhere without power lines or trees. You’ve found a place. That’s perfect.
Now, start the descent. No, no, no. Keep breathing. Stay focused. If you’re coming down too fast, open the valve for a few seconds to slow down. But leave the blast valve closed for longer amounts of time, so the balloon will keep descending. Wait until you’re 6 m (20 ft) above the ground, then pull the red rope that saved Tom and his companions. That lets the heat out of the top of the balloon. Did you feel that? Yes, you did great. Now, tell the other frightened passengers to get ready to hit the ground.
- “What Are the Limits Of Human Survival?”. Natalie Wolchover. 2021. livescience.com.
- “Pilot’s poor decision-making caused worst hot-air balloon crash in history, NTSB says” Bart, Jansen. 2021. usatoday.com.
- “BBC – WW2 People’s War – Barrage Balloons”. 2021. bbc.co.uk.
- “Hot Air Balloon Ride Faqs | Sky Drifters”. 2021. Sky Drifters.
- “How High Hot Air Balloons Go (Legal Limits And Average Height) | Outdoor Troop”. Outdoor Troop.