Can you picture yourself on a summer's day with clear, blue skies floating overhead in a hot air balloon? It's a great way to see the landscape; having an unobstructed view and feeling the wind blowing around you is an entirely different sensation than looking out of a small window as you zoom across the planet in a jet. Balloon flights are very popular as gifts for family and friends. Companies that run flights usually provide some champagne at the end of the journey to celebrate and participants receive a certificate authenticating the experience. Some couples choose to get married in a wicker basket high up in the sky. This is not a legal ceremony in the UK as yet but it is possible in Florida.
The hot air balloon transport was invented by two Frenchmen, the Montgolfier Brothers. There is a model of their original balloon from 1783 on display at the Science Museum in London. In 1960 Ed Yosk took his design skyward in Nebraska. That is essentially the version used today, and the material has evolved from the light nylon used by Yosk to balloons of a nylon or polyester material.
Most ballooning has been done as a pleasant, leisure activity. In later years the business world has begun to book hot air balloon companies for corporate hospitality and staff outings. Now there are many sport-type competitions and some adventurers have set out to make balloon flights for the record books. The world record for altitude was broken in India in 2005,when a balloon ascended to 21,290 meters (69, 852 feet). This isn't a safely recommended height; at that level oxygen is required.
Designers and pilots have invested a lot of time and money into making the activity as safe as possible and reputable companies who take the public on balloon flights have very good safety records. There have been accidents, most of which resulted from coming into contact with power lines. Rarely have accidents been solely due to pilot error.
When you are booking a hot air balloon flight, you should know at least five things.
1. Are the pilots FAA certified? FAA certified pilots renew their ratings twice per year by passing a flight review given by a commercial balloon pilot.
2. Is the balloon equipment FAA certified? FAA regulations require periodic inspections by FAA certified inspectors.
3. Has the company ever had any FAA incidents? These would be public records. Also ask if there have been any accidents at all. Before flight you should see the crew doing a thorough safety check. They will inspect the rigging, envelope, gondola and balloon. They will also know the weather report. If any single thing is wrong the flight should be aborted.
4. Does the company have insurance? Unfortunately a few in the past have not. Hopefully that will not be a problem for anyone now.
5. Is there an adequate crew? You are on the balloon ride to have fun, not to assist with take-offs, landings, or anything in between.
If you find you really love ballooning, you are not alone. Enthusiasts like to come together at the many events organized in America, Canada, the UK and Europe. There are annual hot air balloon festivals where the public can enjoy a great day out and competitors take part in races. The US National Hot Air Balloon championship has a different location each year and was in South Carolina in 2006. There is also a world championship and this took place in Japan in 2006.
I almost forgot. Do not forget to take a camera!