Weather…or not We fly

It’s a beautiful day for a hot air balloon flight, but our office calls and cancels the flight. The balloon, unfortunately, will not be flying. But why?

The most common reasons that flights are cancelled are wind or storms; however, there is also fog, ground condition, and TFR’s. We will explain all of them below.

1. Dangerous wind speed

The wind doesn’t have to look like this in order to be dangerous for ballooning. In fact, anything about 8 mph is considered iffy and once it hits 12 mph, it’s a flat out no. Some times, flights will be canceled because the ground wind is too fast. But what is too fast for a hot air balloon?

Typically, the top speed we will fly in is 6 to 8 mph. So while it might not feel that windy to you, it might still be dangerous for balloons.

2. Dangerous winds at higher altitudes

Another thing that confuses people is when the wind seems perfectly calm but we still cancel because of high winds. Although the ground wind is acceptable, there can still be dangerous winds at higher altitudes. Sometimes it's calm on the ground, but when we test the wind with a pi-ball (a small helium party balloon to give us a visual representation of what the wind is doing) it reaches treetop level and then shoots off into a faster wind sheer. That’s much too dangerous for a balloon to launch into and then try to land with, especially since winds generally comes closer to the ground as the day goes on.

3. Not enough wind

Yes, hot air balloons are very finicky. They can’t have too much wind, but they can’t have too little either. If the wind speed at altitude is 2 mph or below, it can get iffy for flying. In the evening when winds slow down or weather patterns change, if it’s already slow and the balloon could get stranded over woods, planted farm fields, a lake, high tension lines, or town.

4. Winds headed in a dangerous direction

Since balloons travel with the wind, pilots have to be sure that not only is the wind traveling at a safe speed but that it is also going in a safe direction. It would not be good for the balloons to be headed towards the bay where there’s no landing spots, or over a forest or other area they can’t land.

5. A storm front is coming

Storms don’t have to be close in order to negatively affect hot air balloons. In fact, most flights will be cancelled if a storm is within 50 miles. The reason is because a storm produces a massive gust front that proceeds it. These winds can put the hot air balloons at risk. The worst part is there’s very little warning as to when a gust will hit or if one even will hit. One moment it’s calm, the next it’s gusting. Because of the unpredictability of them, we tend to error on the safe side.

6. Ground Conditions

Another thing that comes up is the ground condition. Sometimes, if it just rained, the ground is wet and soft. Balloon baskets bumping and scraping against the grass can rip up the soft turf. This understandably upsets landowners. We also don't want to get the balloon retrieve vehicles stuck.

7. Fog

Fog is dangerous because a balloon can’t land without knowing what’s below it. If the pilot can’t see the bridge, what else can’t he see? Trees? A house? Power lines?

The fun thing about fog is that it doesn’t show up everywhere. For instance, it might be clear on the field where we are taking off, but the area that we are flying towards has fog, or perhaps, the launch site has fog and we can’t see to take off, or conditions are perfect for fog to form while the balloons are up.

Fog is especially dangerous because, well, the pilot can’t see. They could be taking off into a tree, they could hit a cell tower, they could run into high tension lines or any number of other obstacles. Because of that, we are very cautious when it comes to fog.

8. Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs)

Sometimes Air Force One comes through and no aircraft can be flying in the same vicinity, including hot air balloons. This usually happens around election season, when the president is flying around. Some festivals, like the National Cherry Festival, have airshows and the FAA issues a TFR as well.

In Short,

We like to fly and we are just as disappointed as you when we can’t. However, safety is of the utmost importance. Our chief pilot, who has been flying balloons his entire life, has to make sure that there are no dangerous flight conditions.

So these are eight common reasons why hot air balloons don’t fly. We’re just as sorry as you that we couldn’t fly, but we appreciate you trying and hopefully the weather will favor us better next time.

Jeff Gilles