Riding in a hot air balloon is peaceful, it’s whimsical and not as scary as you may think. There is something incredibly serene about gliding above the tree tops and getting a bird’s eye view as the sun rises and the world wakes up. Floating through the sky in a hot air balloon is a truly magical experience. In this article, we will share what it’s actually like to ride in a hot air balloon based on our experience in Charlottesville, Virginia. You may just be inspired to add hot air ballooning to your own bucket list!
About Hot Air Ballooning
The first hot air balloon was launched in 1783 by scientist Pilatre De Rozier, carrying a duck and a sheep, and lasted only 15 minutes in the air before crashing. Two months later, two Frenchmen launched the first successful flight carrying human passengers, and hot air ballooning was born!
How How Air Ballooning Works
How does a hot air balloon fly? The answer is simple physics. To make a hot air balloon fly, heat is pumped into the balloon using propane tanks. The air inside the balloon is hotter and lighter than the air on the outside, causing the balloon to lift off.
Hot air balloons cannot be steered. Before you take-off, your exact landing position will be unknown as the direction the balloon travels is entirely up to the wind speed and direction. Based on the wind direction, you will start your ride in a strategic location that will (hopefully) allow for landing in a desirable location – think flat, open spaces. The pilot can control when you land, by letting up on the level of heat pumped into the balloon to slowly begin lowering it to the ground.
Where to Go Hot Air Ballooning
We went hot air ballooning in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, the views in the Charlottesville area are incredible, especially during the fall as the leaves are changing to bright red and orange. However, there are places all around the world that are known for hot air ballooning, such as:
- Cappadoccia, Turkey: Perhaps the most popular destination for hot air ballooning, known for its distinctive landscape covered with otherworldly cone-shaped rock formations called “fairy chimneys.”
- Albuquerque, New Mexico: Host of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air balloon festival in the world.
- Bagan, Myanmar: Ancient city that is home to over 2,000 ancient temples and pagodas dotting the grassy landscape.
- Sedona, Arizona: Unique red rock formations and canyons stretching as far as the eye can see.
Hot air ballooning in heavy winds can be dangerous. Be aware that if the winds are too heavy, your tour company is likely to cancel the trip – its for everyone’s safety.
Temperatures during the ride are likely to be chillier than on the ground, so be prepared with extra layers, especially during the spring and fall.
Our Hot Air Balloon Experience
We went hot air ballooning with Boar’s Head Ballooning in Charlottesville in October. Boar’s Head Ballooning has been operating in Charlottesville for 37 years with a perfect safety record. We had an awesome experience and would highly recommend them.
Hot air ballooning is not cheap. The tickets cost $250 per person, or $215 per person if you have a group of four to six people. The entire trip took around 3 hours, with about 1 hour of air time. There is a lot of setup and take down work on either end.
Chasing the Wind
We met our tour guides at a central location before heading to our take off spot promptly at 6:00AM. The location of the take off spot will vary based on the wind conditions on the day you are flying. Because a hot air balloon cannot be steered and its flight path is controlled by the wind, your pilot will first determine which direction and how quickly the wind is blowing in order to choose a suitable starting point so that you land in an acceptable area.
On the morning of our flight, the wind was blowing to the south, so we headed north for take off allowing us to land in an area known to have flat, open land.
Preparing for Take off
Setting up a hot air balloon is no easy task. First, the basket is unloaded and placed on its side. The balloon is stored in a large sack and is then laid out on the ground in a long line with the base of the balloon near the top of the overturned basket. Then the cords on the bottom of the balloon are clipped onto the basket.
Next, the propane tanks are lit and directed inside the balloon. Slowly but surely, the balloon starts to fill up with hot air. This process takes around 15 minutes to fill the balloon. Eventually, the balloon starts to slowly lift up off the ground until it is standing entirely upright.
Once the balloon is fully filled with hot air, the pilot will turn off the propane. The balloon hovers overhead, tugging upward on the baskets. Now, the only thing left to do is to climb into the basket. Most baskets do not have doors, so you will have to climb over the edge.
When everyone is ready for take off, the pilot will start blasting the heat again. Slowly the basket will lift up and before you know it, you’re in the air! If there’s one thing we learned about hot air ballooning, it’s that everything happens very slowly. Before take off, I was pretty nervous about the hot air balloon flight, but the take off process is slow and smooth – its really not scary at all!
We were the first of four balloons to take off, so we got to see the others take off after us. It was an incredible sight!
Our entire flight lasted about 1 hour from take off to landing, but flight times can vary based on the wind speed.
At the beginning of our flight, we passed right over a little lake. The winds were light and the lake was perfectly still, creating an incredible reflection of the sky, trees, and balloon.
From where we took off, we passed right over the Charlottesville airport and watched airplanes taking off from above. At first we were a little nervous about entering the path of the planes, but our pilot assured us not to worry. He carried a radio with him and was in direct contact with air traffic control at the airport to make sure they knew we were passing by!
Fun Fact: Hot air balloons are technically FAA certified aircrafts. This means balloon pilots can work with air traffic control to ensure their safety.
We started the balloon setup process early in the morning. By the time we were in flight, we were able to watch the tail end of the sun rising over the Blue Ridge Mountains. What an incredible sight from the sky!
In Charlottesville in October, the leaves had just started to change colors, making for a picture perfect view of red, orange and green from above. We passed over forests, small farms, rivers and even saw some folks rowing on the river below.
With hot air balloons, you land where you land. Someone’s backyard? Better to ask for forgiveness than permission and that’s exactly what we did…
We landed in the large backyard of someone’s house, in a small neighborhood. Luckily, the residents were thrilled to watch us land! They had little kids who couldn’t believe their eyes. We totally made their day.
The landing is a little bumpier than the take off. To land, the pilot lets up on the propane, causing the balloon to start slowly lowering to the ground. Once you reach a flat, open space the pilot shuts off the propane and you continuing gliding towards the ground. When the basket meets the ground, it jolts and skids and nearly tips over as the balloon continues to try to pull it forward.
Once you’ve landed, you will help the pilot deflate the balloon, roll it up and pack it back into the bag. Squeezing all the air out of the huge balloon is hard work. Like blowing it up, this process takes time.
At the end of the day, hot air ballooning is a unique and unforgettable way to experience an area. Fear not, riding in a hot air balloon is peaceful and serene, and not at all scary! Whether you’re in Charlottesville, Virginia or Cappadocia, Turkey, you are sure to have an amazing time. Although it can be pricey, a hot air balloon ride is something worth splurging on for a once in a lifetime experience.
For all things Virginia: Virginia Travel Guide
Considering taking a hot air balloon ride? Questions about our experience? Comment below and we’ll do our best to help!