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How Do Hot Air Balloons Steer?

a large balloon in the sky

A common question we receive is how do hot air balloons steer? 

In short they don’t, hot air balloons do not have a steering wheel or yoke (like an airplane), but pilots use their skills to navigate with the winds. Learn more below!

a large balloon in the sky

Basic Principles of Hot Air Balloon Navigation

  1. Altitude Control:
    • Heating the Air: The balloon ascends when the pilot heats the air inside the balloon envelope. This is done using propane burners. Hot air rises because it is less dense than the cooler air outside the balloon.
    • Cooling the Air: To descend, the pilot allows the air inside the balloon to cool. This can be done by waiting to ignite the burners and letting the air naturally cool down, or by venting hot air from the top of the envelope.
  2. Wind Currents:
    • Layered Wind Directions: Winds at different altitudes often blow in different directions and at different speeds. By ascending or descending, the pilot can navigate the balloon horizontally by moving into layers of air that are moving in the desired direction.
    • Weather and Wind Analysis: Pilots study weather reports, wind patterns, and forecasts to understand how winds change with altitude. This information helps them plan the route and make in-flight decisions.

a large balloon in the air

Tools and Techniques for Navigation

  1. Pre-Flight Planning:
    • Weather Reports: Detailed weather reports and wind forecasts are crucial. Pilots look at wind speeds and directions at various altitudes before taking off.
    • Flight Path Planning: Based on the wind information, pilots plan the general direction of the flight and potential landing areas.
    • Pi-Ball: Prior to flight pilots release a helium balloon and watch it ascend through different wind layers and develop a flight plan with live data.
  2. In-Flight Adjustments:
    • Burners and Vents: The pilot controls altitude using burners to heat the air and vents to release hot air. This allows them to ascend or descend into different wind layers.
    • Visual Cues: Pilots will scan the sky looking for in air visual clues like smoke or steam rising indicating which direction the wind it headed. Dust on roads is also a wonderful clue as to wind on the surface. Tree leaves (like Quaker Aspen) indicate wind speed as well as flags. Pilots will also use visual references such as landmarks, roads, and other geographical features to monitor their position and direction.
    • On Board Tools: Pilots constantly monitor wind in flight. One way to monitor winds below you is to spit! A pilot will spit overboard and watch the spit fall through the different wind layers, another useful tool is shaving cream. Shaving cream sprayed over the side will also show which way the winds are blowing.
  3. Instruments: Balloons carry instruments on board to assist with flight.
    • Variometer: Measures the rate of climb or descent.
    • Altimeter: Indicates the balloon’s altitude above sea level.
    • GPS Devices: Modern balloons are often equipped with GPS to provide precise location data, which helps in navigation and tracking.
    • Pyrometer: Indicates the temperature at the top of the balloon.

a large balloon in the sky

Practical Navigation

  1. Launch and Landing:
    • Launch Site Selection: Pilots choose launch sites based on the anticipated wind directions and available landing sites.
    • Landing Sites: Pilots aim for wide-open spaces, such as fields, where they can safely land the balloon. They also communicate with ground crews to coordinate recovery.
  2. Coordination with Ground Crew:
    • Chase Crew: A ground crew follows the balloon in vehicles, maintaining communication with the pilot to assist with landing and retrieval.
    • Communication: Continuous communication between the pilot and the ground crew ensures smooth navigation and landing.

Challenges and Considerations

  1. Weather Conditions: Sudden changes in weather, such as unexpected winds or storms, can complicate navigation, however, with modern day forecasting pilots are rarely surprised.
  2. Geographical Obstacles: Mountains, bodies of water, and urban areas require careful planning to avoid.
  3. Regulatory Restrictions: Pilots must comply with F.A.A airspace regulations.

In essence, hot air balloon navigation relies on the pilot’s skill in reading and responding to wind patterns, as well as careful planning and coordination with ground support. By ascending or descending into different layers of air moving in various directions, pilots can guide the balloon along a desired route.