How do you steer a Hot Air Balloon?
One of the most asked questions when you tell someone you are a hot air balloon pilot is “How do you steer a hot air balloon?”
Fair enough it is actually a good quest. Most people think that there is no control over where you go and where you land. How wrong they are!
This was highlighted to me when my friend Matthew and I were on a lesson and we took off with an instructor at a local runway. I was in control for the first hour and we flew about twenty kilometres before the instructor asked me to land. Once on the ground we swapped pilots and Matthew took over. John (our instructor) asked Matthew where he would like to fly to, and Matthew said “lets go back to the airport”.
To be totally honest I was a bit surprised but that is exactly what we did; 45 minutes later Matthew landed back on the same runway I took off from earlier.
This is how he did it:
Hot Air Balloon Meteorology
Each morning before a flight we do our Met Work ie. we get all the local Meteorology (weather) conditions that will effect a flight. We know basic things like temperature, air pressure, chance of rain and cloud cover but most importantly we find out about wind direction and wind speed.
So, as you would expect, the balloon will go the same direction the wind is heading, and at the same speed. But the bonus is that at different heights the wind travels in different directions and speeds.
Say for example, on one hypothetical great ballooning morning the ground wind is a nice 3 knots in a southerly direction (180 degree wind direction) from 0 feet to 500 feet but at 501 feet and above the wind direction is westerly and 6 knots.
Note: When we talk about wind directions we talk about where they come from, so a southerly comes from the south and heads to the north.
In the above scenario a balloon pilot can use the southerly wind, as they take off, to head towards the north and then at any time they want rise above 500 feet to head towards the east using the higher westerly wind. That is a big area you can steer in.
In Matthew’s case the ground wind was in the complete different direction than the wind above 1,000 feet. That was how Matthew was able to land at the same spot we took off from and how a Balloon Pilot can steer a balloon – by changing their height to use different wind directions.
Check out our list of Balloonist’s Essential Equipment here.