Hot air balloon rides offer an airborne experience like no other, lifting riders thousands of feet into the air using technology that has barely changed since the first hot air balloon cruised across Paris more than two centuries ago. While the best hot air balloons tours promise safe rides with experienced pilots (as does Traverse City Balloon Tours), they rarely tell you how hot air balloons fly. Let's fix that right now.

They're called hot air balloons for a reason

Of course, the principle behind hot air balloon rides is that heat rises. That's true only because heated air becomes less dense than cool air, and therefore lighter. The same way air bubbles rise in carbonated water, a pocket of hot air will rise in denser cold air. In hot air ballooning, a gas burner heats air that feeds into the bottom of large fabric balloon — called an envelope — effectively trapping the light air inside a giant bubble. Strong ropes stabilize the bottom of the balloon by anchoring it to a rigid basket, which carries plots and passengers. When enough hot air pushes against the top of the envelope, trying to escape upward, it lifts the balloon and basket with it.

What goes up must come down

Hot air will eventually cool down as it rises, so a hot air balloon would simply rise and then fall again if heat weren't continually applied to air within the envelope, and the pilot can make a balloon stay up by running the burner. However, anyone who's looked close at a hot air balloon will spot a hole in the top of the envelope. That adjustable opening is a vent, allowing the balloon pilot to release some of the heated air while flying, thereby reducing lift and floating down. This grants the pilot a greater degree of control over the hot air balloon's altitude (we'll talk about why that’s important in a moment).

Because the best hot air balloons tours take place over scenic locales, it's also important for the pilot to be able to control which way the basket faces as the balloon rises and floats through the air. That's why you'll see additional vents in the sides of the envelope. They give the pilot an opportunity to side-vent air, creating a shift in the air inside the envelope so that the basket turns with the balloon overhead.

Wind makes them go

One of the most exciting things to recognize about how hot air balloons fly is that there's no direct steering. Venting to turn the balloon may change the direction a basket faces, but won't change the direction the balloon flies. The direction of the hot air balloon ride is up to the wind alone, meaning you will never take the exact same hot air balloon tour twice.

But humans are a clever lot, and have figured out that wind changes direction at different altitudes. By paying attention to wind patterns, an experienced pilot will raise and lower the balloon into different wind flows to change the direction the balloon floats.

That's part of the reason hot air balloon rides have such exciting finishes. A skilled pilot will eventually guide a balloon to an ideal landing spot, typically an empty field, for a gentle landing.

The best hot air balloons tours in Michigan

At Traverse City Balloon Tours, we have pilots of such skill, offering safe but thrilling rides over Michigan's breathtaking, lakeshore landscapes. Schedule a hot air balloon ride with us today!

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