Factors why weather is such a crucial part of our operation
Hot air balloons need the ideal weather conditions to be able to fly and is dependent on weather factors including wind speeds, visibility and more.
When is it too windy to fly? Balloons fly best in light and stable winds of 4-6 miles per hour. Maximum safe winds are 8-10 mph.
Winds can affect every phase of a flight. During inflation the balloon envelope is filled with cold air using a fan and the balloon fabric can act like a giant sail. If the winds are approaching 10 mph, it makes inflation of the envelope almost impossible, causing the sides of the balloon to cave in and roll around, sometimes violently.
A balloon flights path and distance are determined by the wind's speed and direction. Strong winds can take the balloon too far and this can be a problem. Excessive winds can carry a balloon in unsuitable landing areas that include, metropolitan areas, restricted airspace, or near large bodies of water. Strong winds are not the only problem, no wind can prevent the balloon from traveling and can make finding a safe landing spot difficult.
The landing is the last phase that can be affected. High wind speeds require a larger landing area since the balloon relies on friction from the basket dragging along the ground to come to a stop. Balloons do not have brakes like airplanes
What are winds aloft? You are outside and don't feel a hint of a breeze but your flight was cancelled due to wind? When our Pilots check for winds prior to a flight, they check for surface winds and the winds up to 9,000 feet. Even though the balloon won't be traveling that high, it gives the pilot information on what issues they may encounter, such as wind shear, turbulence, or strong surface winds later on. Even if there are no winds at the surface, the winds aloft may drive the decision not to fly. Winds aloft of 18-20 knots or 20 miles per hour can be sufficient to cancel a flight.
What is a pi-ball? Often times pilots will test the wind on the launch field with a pi-ball (a small helium party balloon). It gives the pilots a visual representation of what the wind is doing. It helps alert the pilot of dangers, such as a wind sheer (when the pi-ball reaches the tree tops and then shoots off very fast), and will help the pilot determine if its too dangerous to launch.
How do pilots steer balloons? Pilots don't steer the balloon. A balloon drifts in the same direction and at the same speed as the wind. The pilots skill is on display when he ascends or descends to find the right altitude with the most desired wind direction. As explained earlier the surface winds and winds aloft can be different speeds or directions at different altitudes.
Visibility also plays a role in a safe flight. Balloon pilots require 1-3 mile visibility. The airspace in our area requires visibility in excess of 3 miles. This is a minimum.
Balloons do not fly in rain or storms. Due to the lack of steering, the pilot cannot fly away from a storm like other aircraft. Rain can also cool the balloon and the air inside the envelope which makes in harder for the pilot to control.
Why are hot air balloon flights sometimes canceled in fair weather? If harsh weather is expected, a flight may be canceled even when the weather appears fine. Pilots check accurate local weather forecasts to determine the safety of the flight and will not take chances.
Hot air balloon pilots, like aircraft pilots, rely on the METAR or TAF systems to check the weather. METAR is a weather forecast that is issued at hourly or half-hour intervals. If there is a significant deterioration or improvement in the weather, a SPECI report is issued as and when substantial changes are expected.
TAF is a similar system to METAR and provides a concise account of meteorological conditions. TAF is produced as a short code that identifies the area, date and time of origin, the period of the forecast and meteorological conditions, which include wind speed visibility, rain, mist and cloud cover.
TAF and METAR forecasts provide a much more local and detailed forecast than what passengers get from a local radio or TV station.
It may be warm and dry with light winds in the take-off area, but the METAR data could forecast that within half an hour there will be heavy rain. The balloon pilot wants assurance that there will be good weather to fly the balloon during the whole of the flight.
Flights may also be canceled due to heat. On hot days, the combination of the outside temperature and the heat from the burners will make the trip miserable for everyone involved. As a general rule, we will cancel if the heat index is over 95°.
Safety is our priority and we know the disappointment felt when a flight is cancelled, but our passenger's safety is what matters which is why we only fly in good conditions.