Blue View - The Logistics of Hot Air


Marcie and I are at the granddaddy of balloon fests... the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. We've been up in hot air balloons before, and we've been to other balloon fests, but nothing compares to this. It's a nine day event held each October. This year there are 580 balloons from 44 states and from 17 other countries.

A few of thw balloons in the mass ascension

A few of thw balloons in the mass ascension

Each day sees a host of events, ranging from pre-dawn flights to fireworks displays in the evenings. There are competitions to see who can drop a sandbag closest to a target or pluck a prize (like the keys to a new pickup, for example) from the top of a pole. There are morning and evening glows, when all the balloon pilots randomly fire their burners into their tethered envelopes. There are skydivers, music, chain saw sculpture contests, food vendors, and more. But best of all, in my opinion, are the mass ascensions each morning, just as the sun rises. Watching hundreds of balloons launch within the space of forty-five minutes or so is incredible.

Evening Glow

Evening Glow

Marcie’s ride is up and away

Marcie’s ride is up and away

Organizing the logistics of each day's mass ascension must be a complex exercise. Just think about the steps required to launch a single balloon:

  • Set up and check basket. Mount the burners and attach the propane tanks. Check the ignition and flame of the burners, then lay the basket on its side. Attach the basket to chase vehicle.

  • Attach the envelope and stretch it out downwind of the basket. (This takes up a very large area - as much as a ten story building.) Often, a drop cloth is placed on the ground first to protect the expensive envelope. Attach a line to the crown.

  • Start the inflation fan and partially fill envelope. The inflation fan was an important invention, by the way. Before these were available, someone had to stand in the mouth of the envelope, holding it open while the burner heated the air inside enough to begin inflating it. This luckless person was nicknamed 'Cremation Charlie'.

  • Ignite the burner and give the envelope several blasts a few seconds long. The blasts can't be too long... While the lower part of the balloon is constructed of a high temperature, fireproof material, it's still possible to melt the lines or plastic of the envelope. The fan continues to blow, forcing the hot air further into the envelope.

  • After a minute or so, the balloon begins to rise. One of the crew holds the line attached to the crown to keep the envelope from oscillating. The tether to the chase vehicle keeps the basket and envelope from moving downwind. As the balloon becomes vertical, the basket will be lifted into the upright position.

  • The passengers are loaded aboard. The pilot continues to give the envelope intermittent blasts from the burners to keep it upright and inflated, but not enough to cause the basket to lift off. When all is ready, the crown line is attached to the basket, the tether is released, and the pilot gives the envelope a steady blast from the burner, lifting the balloon off.

If the balloon is the only one being launched, and if the weather is good and the crew is experienced, this whole procedure takes about 15 minutes. If several hundred balloons are all launching together as part of a mass ascension, a lot more organization is required:

A lot of balloons to coordinate

A lot of balloons to coordinate

  • Each pilot is assigned a space. The entire launch area is staked off in a grid, so if a pilot is assigned space D4, for example, he/she knows exactly where to go.

  • Each balloon is assigned a launch director. He is attired in a striped uniform like a football referee (and has the nickname 'Zebra'). For the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, there are dozens of Zebras.

  • The pilots attend a pre-launch briefing. Credentials are verified, the weather is discussed, and the order in which the balloons are to launch is given. Each pilot is given a launch card - a small document that shows he/she is cleared and authorized to launch.

  • When the pilot is ready to begin the launch process, the launch card is given to the Zebra. Permission must be given by the Zebra for every step of the launch procedure.

  • When the balloon is ready to launch, the Zebra clears the spectators from the field downwind of the balloon, checks the airspace above, and when all looks good, gives the pilot a thumbs-up.

The Launch Director (aka Zebra) gives a thumbs up

The Launch Director (aka Zebra) gives a thumbs up

When all goes as planned, the result is spectacular, with 10-12 balloons being launched at a time, and balloons everywhere you look.


Here are some other tidbits of information:

  • The launch can be canceled at any time for a variety of reasons... a turn in the weather, equipment malfunction, etc. or at the pilot's discretion.

  • Each day, a weather flag is flown. A red flag means the launch is canceled, yellow means the launch is postponed in the hopes that the weather might improve, and a green flag indicates that the launch is on.

  • Balloons can't be steered. Flaps are used to keep the balloon from rotating, but the pilot can only control the altitude. Since the wind direction and speed usually vary with altitude, a pilot has some control over direction and speed by changing altitude.

  • Balloons have the right-of-way over all aircraft except an aircraft in distress.

  • A pilot can see what's below the balloon, but not what's above, and thus a balloon going upward generally has the right-of-way. Since a balloon can't be steered, however, it isn't always possible for a higher balloon to get out of the way of a rising balloon. For this reason, an air horn is part of the standard equipment aboard a balloon.

  • When the envelopes of two balloons touch or collide, it's called kissing. This happens on occasion and usually isn't a problem. When the envelope of a rising balloon comes in contact with the basket of a balloon above, it is a problem.

  • The average height of a balloon is 70 feet, but some are as tall as 100 feet.

  • Attendance at this year's Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is expected to be between 850,000 and 900,000 people.

  • A balloon typically costs between $60,000 and $75,000, although some of the specialty and shaped balloons can cost much more... not an inexpensive hobby.

  • A balloon envelope has a lifetime of 300-400 hours of inflation time.

  • A pilot-to-be can get a student license at 14 years of age and become fully licensed for private, non-commercial flights at 16. That means that in some states, a new pilot may have to be driven to his balloon by his parents, since he wouldn't be old enough for a driver's license.

The Albuquerque Box

The Albuquerque Box

  • The Albuquerque Box. This is a wind pattern that occurs about 30% of the time in Albuquerque during October. As the cool nighttime air begins heating up in the early morning hours, an inversion layer sometimes forms. This causes the lower altitude winds to blow southward, and the higher altitude winds to blow northward. A pilot can launch and fly south for a mile or two, then rise up and catch the north winds and fly back to the starting point. On a good day, a pilot can navigate the Albuquerque Box two or three times and land in almost the same spot as the balloon was launched from.

  • The average fuel consumption for a hot air balloon is about 15 gallons per hour. A balloon can typically stay aloft for about two hours.

  • Weather stones. These are the rocks that are pitched at the local meteorologist after too many weather cancellations.

We've taken quite a lot of video footage of the events, and if any of it is any good, we'll edit it down and hopefully make a watchable video for next week's Blue View. See you then. In the meantime, catch Marcie’s blogs on Monday and Wednesday. We' haven’t been idle!