Because of their beauty, hot air balloons have captured the imaginations of painters, photographers, and laymen. But they are much more than pretty; they’re also impressive flying machines that can fly around the world and reach astronomical heights.
A hot air balloon can stay up in the air for as long as they have fuel and good conditions to keep them there. Average hot air balloon rides normally last between one and two hours. Some hot air balloons that have been designed for more extreme goals than just a leisure ride have stayed in the air for up to twenty days!
There is a lot that you can do to manipulate how long a hot air balloon stays in the air for. With enough determination, luck, and some excellent engineering, you could just stay up there indefinitely!
How Hot Air Balloons Stay Aloft
The fact that hot air balloons can fly at all is really impressive. Anything above and beyond that (pun intended) is mind-boggling! You may have been surprised to hear that some balloons have stayed up for twenty days!
How is it possible for a hot air balloon to stay up for that long? How is it possible for a hot air balloon to stay in the air at all?
Here’s the short answer: a hot air balloon can stay in the air for as long as it has hot air and it doesn’t run into anything. The full answer is a little bit more complex.
To fully understand how hot air balloons stay aloft, we’ll look at it from two different perspectives: theoretical and practical.
In theory, hot air balloons stay in the air because of the law of buoyancy. This law is also called Archimedes’ principle, name after the guy who discovered it.
This law states that any object partially or completely submerged in a fluid (a liquid or a gas) will be acted upon by an upward force equal to the amount of fluid displaced by the object.
If that sentence is hard to wrap your mind around (trust me, I’ve been there), then this simple illustration should help.
Tennis balls float in water, but why? Well, when you put a tennis ball in water, the upward force on the tennis ball (the buoyant force) is equal to the downward force created by gravity.
That buoyant force exists because of the water displaced by the tennis ball and is equal to the amount of water displaced by the tennis ball.
Imagine for a moment that you took that tennis ball and shrunk it down really tiny, but still kept the weight exactly the same. When you put it into the water, it would sink!
That’s because the downward force is the same, but the upwards force is much smaller because the tiny tennis ball displaces less water!
That’s the law of buoyancy, and it’s why hot air balloons stay in the air!
As the air inside the envelope of a balloon heats up, it begins the weigh less than the air outside of the envelope. That air begins to rise, and since it’s trapped inside the envelope, it pulls the whole balloon with it!
As long as the hot air balloon is equally or positively buoyant, the hot air balloon will stay in the air. And that’s the theory behind how a hot air balloon stays in the air!
In practice, this means you’ll basically need two things: a very durable hot air balloon and a lot of fuel. Having less weight couldn’t hurt either!
In order to keep the air inside the envelope heated, a burner shoots flame into the envelope. That burner is connected to tanks of liquid propane that actually create the flame.
If you want to go up, you heat the air inside the envelope until the lift is greater than the weight. If you want to go down, do the opposite. If you want to stay the same, keep the lift and weight equal.
Of course, it’s virtually impossible to keep the lift and weight exactly the same, so hot air balloons tend to ‘bob’ a little bit in the air.
There’s a couple of things that you want and don’t want in order to stay in the air. You want plenty of fuel to keep those burners going and as little weight as possible.
You don’t want a burner to malfunction or to run into bad weather. Both of those things will sink you really fast.
So as long as you can keep up your fuel supply and nothing goes wrong, you’re all set. That’s the practical side of staying in the air!
What to Expect for Beginners
You may be getting a little nervous as you read this. Up to this point, we’ve talked about how long you could stay in the air, but what if you don’t want to be up there for that long?
Well, you needn’t worry. Most hot air balloon rides last between one and two hours. If you want, they can be even shorter than that!
In this section, we’ll cover what you should expect if you’re just going for a leisure ride. Trust me, your mind will be set at ease if you’ve been at all worried whilst reading.
Time in the Air
This is the part you’re really wondering about: how long will we be in the air for? Well, as I’ve mentioned, it should be about an hour or two. There are a few factors that could change that.
First of all, unexpected bad weather could certainly curtail your trip a little bit. It isn’t safe or fun to fly in bad weather, so pilots will land at the first sign of bad weather.
Bad weather includes rain, high winds, or poor visibility. Of course, anything more severe than that is a definite no go. Normally these things will be picked up in advance, and the flight may be delayed a little.
Another thing that could cut your trip short is mechanical errors. These are rare, but they can happen from time to time.
Don’t be too worried though. There are safety procedures in place that will ensure a safe landing. It is very rare for there to be a ballooning accident.
There is also something that could keep you in the air longer, and that thing is money. As many trips as you want to pay for, you can have!
Of course, there are business hours, fuel stops, and that sleep thing, but your money really can take you as far as you want!
Who said money can’t buy happiness?
How to be Prepared
There isn’t too much to prepare for when getting ready for a hot air balloon ride, but you really shouldn’t forget the few things you do need to be prepared for.
First off, don’t forget to use the bathroom. An hour or two isn’t too long, but you really don’t want to get caught 2,000 feet in the air. If you know you have a small bladder, do everyone a favor and go beforehand.
Secondly, bring sunglasses. An hour of amazing views is awesome, but it’s also an hour of greater sun exposure. Bringing sunglasses can help you enjoy the view without roasting your eyes.
Third, bring a hat. Do this especially if you’re tall. The burner that shoots flames into the envelope is just over your head. That isn’t too bad until you’re 6’4″ and got stuck directly underneath the burner.
In short, just know that you’ll be up there for an hour or so, and there’s no quick (and safe) way to get down. Prepare accordingly.
If you’re a thrill seeker or an enthusiast, staying in the air longer may be just up your alley. If that’s the case for you, then this is the section for you!
How could you increase your airtime? This won’t be a “best parts to buy” guide, but it will cover the basics of how to stay in the air longer. The rest is up to you!
Fuel and Weight
In order to increase your time in the air, you have two basic goals to focus in on: increasing your fuel and decreasing your weight. There’s a couple of ways you could go about accomplishing those goals.
In terms of increasing your fuel, you can find more creative ways to store your fuel. A lot of hot air balloons store their fuel on the inside of the basket, and that isn’t a bad idea at all.
But what if you put some fuel on the outside? It isn’t too difficult to set up a strap system that will allow you to do this. Of course, you’ll need to be careful, but there are already balloons that do this.
You can also open up more space in the basket for fuel tanks. This is easier if it’s just you up there.
The lighter your balloon is, the less fuel it will need to stay up. This leads us to the second goal: decreasing weight.
You can decrease weight most easily by buying a smaller hot air balloon. A one or two person hot air balloon is perfect for this.
You also want to have as few people in the basket as possible. If you’re going for distance, having just one person is ideal.
Also, get rid of all unnecessary equipment. One back up burner is plenty, you don’t need the padding on your poles or basket meant for comfort, and you definitely don’t need an over-sized, colorful envelope.
Contradictions and Conundrums
You may have noticed some contradictions in the above section. Hopefully you did because they’re certainly there. The goals of increasing fuel and decreasing weight are in opposition to each other.
There bigger basket you have, the more fuel you can have. Unfortunately, you also have more weight. Furthermore, more fuel in and of its self means more weight!
So how do you balance these contradicting goals? Well, that’s the hard part of sustaining prolonged flight. It always has been, and it probably always will be.
For longer flights, the math becomes really tricky when trying to balance these two priorities. Do you prioritize weight or fuel? I tend to believe that you should find a balance.
As engineering and science have advanced, there have been many solutions to this problem. Lighter and more durable fuels, smarter ways to moderate fuel use, and so on.
There will continue to be advancements in this area. It’s a fascinating puzzle that begs to be solved!
Notable Flight Duration
There have been some pilots who have dared to go higher, further, and longer than anyone else. These individuals are pioneers into the realm of possibility.
There have been several flights that have lasted for days on end without landing. It is trips like these that beg the question: how long can hot air balloons stay in the air?
These pilots and their incredible flights are worth mentioning. They can give us a sense for just how long a hot air balloon really can stay in the air.
Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones
Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones were the first people to ever travel all the way around the world in a hot air balloon without stopping. Their feat broke several world records.
In fact, too this day it remains one of the greatest ballooning feats ever. Not only did it shatter what was thought possible at the time, but it also remains a feat few have replicated.
On their historic journey, Piccard and Jones were in the air for a breathtaking 20 days!
I sure hope they liked each other!
Steve Fossett may as well be called Mr. Balloon. His list of achievements is almost as long as this article. In fact, it may be longer!
Of all his achievements, his most impressive may be his solo flight around the world. At the time, he was the first person to accomplish this feat. Few have followed in his footsteps!
Mr. Fossett was in the air for 14 days during his flight! Do you think he brought a magazine with him?
One of the few people who have replicated Mr. Fossett’s incredible flight is Fedor Konyukhov. Konyukhov is perhaps the greatest adventurer of our time. Certainly one of the greatest adventurers ever.
Aside from his achievements in boating, exploring, and ballooning, he is also a celebrated artist, a priest in the Ukrainian Orthodox Catholic Church, and he served in the Soviet Navy for three years!
During his solo flight around the world, Konyukhov set the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the world in a balloon.
He was in the air for a little over 11 days. Maybe he painted something while he was up there!
Is There a Limit?
Humankind has always dreamed of soaring into the sky. From the Wright brothers to Neil Armstrong, we have always wanted to push the limits of possibility.
Hot air balloonists share that passion. The things hot air balloons have done in the last half-century are incredible! They’re definitely a far cry from what early balloonists thought possible.
So, when it comes to how long a hot air balloon can stay in the air, it there a limit?
If there is, I don’t know what it is. There are certainly challenges as we’ve already discussed.
However, as we’ve also discussed, challenges haven’t stopped people from achieving the impossible before! Each challenge is actually an opportunity for greatness.
So, how long can a hot air balloon stay in the sky? Only time will tell.