In 2012, we went to Arizona for a trip that included a variety of activities. One of the things on our bucket (or should that be basket?) list was a ride in a hot air balloon.
Hot air balloon rides are a little more expensive now, typically $100 to $300 per person. Traditionally, this includes champagne after the ride. It’s a superstition thing. Rides can last from one to four hours.
Are Hot Air Balloons Safe?
You’ve probably heard of nasty hot air balloon accidents in the news.
They make the news for a reason: They are incredibly rare. Make sure that the operator you go with has a good reputation and you will be mostly safe. Captains (and yes, they are captains and their word is law from takeoff to landing) go through extensive training.
Your ride will most likely be in the early morning or evening (often very early morning. We had to get up at 4am for hours. Which was fine as we were still jet lagged) because that’s when the weather is calmest. Do not argue if your trip has to be canceled because of weather. No good captain will fly in unsafe conditions. Operators will not charge you unless you actually fly, and will try to reschedule you if possible.
You will have a chase team on the ground. Hopefully the only things they will have to do are set the balloon up, put it away, and give you your champagne.
The chase vehicle will follow you as closely as possible through the flight. The only way a balloon can steer is by changing altitude to catch different winds. So, this is the only way they can guarantee being there when you land. Your captain will have some vague idea of a planned landing site, but it doesn’t always go as planned.
The most dangerous point of the trip is landing. Sometimes, even the most experienced pilot can tip the basket. Some balloons have safety belts to keep you from spilling out if this happens, but even without them generally the worst case scenario is minor injuries and a bit of indignity (I don’t recommend wearing a skirt or kilt). Our captain told us the most common injury for passengers was idiots who dismount the basket incorrectly and twist an ankle.
So, Wait, You Can’t Steer?
Hot air balloons don’t have engines. The only thing they have is a burner which is used to control the temperature of the air inside the balloon. Burner on, air gets hot, balloon goes up. Burner off, air cools, balloon stays level and eventually goes down.
So, you can control your altitude but not your direction. The true skill of piloting a balloon, thus, is to know how high you need to be to go in the direction you choose. It’s all about watching the wind and understanding the weather.
Balloon tours choose their takeoff points carefully for the precise conditions. They generally have multiple takeoff points.
If you look at the top picture you’ll see a second balloon, and the photo next to this shows the other tour group that were taking off just after us. They’re still on the ground, and we’re heading up. During our trip, I think it was five balloons took off from the same site. And this was not an accident. While driving out there they were on the radio not just with the other ride they were operating, but with all the other operators.
Balloonists fly in flocks, and having other people around your takeoff site is helpful if something goes wrong.
So, where you end up on your ride is planned out, but they can never predict it exactly.
What Does Being in a Balloon Feel Like?
Nothing like an airplane! In calm weather (and remember they won’t go up if the weather is at all iffy), it feels like you are standing on top of a very high tower. There is no sense of movement. You blink and you’ve gone up two thousand feet.
If they do a low fly by after takeoff (ours did because our captain spotted a coyote and wanted to give us the photo op) you will get more of a sense of motion, but once at height? Nope. You’re moving with the wind, so there’s no wind.
It’s silent until they turn on the burner.
Don’t try to talk over the burner. Just don’t. Those things are loud.
The basket itself is pretty deep, and believe me, you are not going to fall out. Not in flight. Baskets for tour balloons are pretty solid affairs. (If you’ve seen pictures of a racing balloon, that’s quite different, just as a racing yacht is different from a tour boat).
What Should You Wear?
Bring a light jacket or other extra layer. Even moving with the wind the temperature may drop some as you climb.
Wear pants. If you absolutely must wear a skirt, I recommend leggings or cycling shorts underneath. You’re going to be climbing in and out of a deep basket and you don’t want to give everyone a show. Don’t wear high heels for the same reason. Athletic shoes or walking shoes are the best.
Sunglasses are a good idea and please, please put on sun screen. The sun will get more intense at altitude.
And take your camera.
There is literally no better platform for photography than a balloon! It’s so stable you can just rest your elbow on the basket and you might as well have a tripod (don’t bring tripods, there’s no room for them). I use an actual camera, but if you use your phone, consider taking a selfie stick as you might be able to get some very interesting ideas from this.
All of the photos with this article were taken from a balloon, just to give you some idea.
What’s With the Champagne?
I already mentioned the champagne.
Balloonists celebrate a successful flight with champagne, and your trip will probably include champagne. Ours included breakfast, and they also brought orange juice so you could make a mimosa if you preferred.
So, why champagne?
You are probably not surprised when I say: Blame the French.
Well, thank the French. The French invented hot air ballooning, and legend has it that balloonists would fly with a bottle of champagne as a peace offering when they landed in their field. I don’t buy the part where it was to prove they weren’t aliens or invaders, but it does seem like a very French thing to do “Sorry I landed in your field, here’s a drink.”
And this was, of course, back when hot air balloons were new, unproven, and not very safe. Sharing a bottle of champagne to celebrate surviving makes sense. And then it just became tradition, or perhaps superstition.
Either way, it’s not required to drink some bubbly after you land, but expect it to be offered.
If riding in a hot air balloon is on your bucket list, there are many places in the United States and abroad where you can give it a try. It’s not cheap, but it’s a very interesting experience. And comes with bubbly!