The fact that hot air balloons can actually fly is proof that anything is possible. Of course, a lot of conditions have to be met or else the balloon has to be grounded. The number one thing that grounds balloons is wind.
To ensure a safe flight, hot air balloons should never fly in wind above 10 mph. In most cases, a balloon won’t even take off in winds exceeding 12 mph. Ideally, a hot air balloon would like to fly in 4-6 mph winds. High winds can seriously damage a balloon and injure passengers.
Since wind is such an important component when flying a hot air balloon, it’s super important to be well informed about safe wind conditions. Being aware of wind conditions can make all the difference in ballooning!
Ideal Flying Winds
John MacArthur famously wrote, “Federal agents don’t learn to spot counterfeit money by studying the counterfeits. They study genuine bills until they master the look of the real thing. Then when they see the bogus money they recognize it”.
Just like studying genuine money will help federal agents recognize bogus money, studying ideal wind speeds and patterns can help pilots recognize dangerous wind.
In fact, it’s much more important to recognize ideal wind when ballooning. If you only wait to recognize unsafe wind, it’s normally too late. For that reason, we’ll begin by discussing ideal flying wind.
Much of life is spent doing our best in imperfect situations. The “ideal” almost seems like a fairy tale at times. Such is not the case when it comes to hot air ballooning.
Balloons are reliable in many ways, and yet at the same time, they are also incredibly fragile. Hot air balloons should always fly in the ideal situation. Anything less could be dangerous.
Another way of saying that is that hot air balloons fly because of very specific scientific principles. When those principles are unattainable, the whole process fails.
Below we’ll discuss what ideal winds actually look like.
A Look into the Ideal
When looking for ideal wind speeds, pilots are looking for wind between 4 and 6 mph. Of course, winds over 6 mph can be difficult to navigate, but why is anything below 4 mph not ideal?
Wind below 4 mph is less of a safety concern and more of a party pooper. You see, hot air balloons move at the same speed as the wind. So, if there’s no wind, the balloon won’t go anywhere!
In ideal winds, the envelope won’t struggle to inflate, the balloon won’t struggle to ascend, and the whole flight will be a gentle dance through the sky.
Sometimes with winds this slow you won’t even notice the wind at all. Normally you’ll feel a very gentle breeze. Especially when you’re in the sky, it’ll seem as if you’re just floating along with the wind.
In fact, once elevated, you shouldn’t feel any wind at all. Because the hot air balloon moves at the same speed as the wind, it’s as if you’ve become one with the wind.
We really only feel the wind when we’re moving against the wind or the wind is moving against us. When we move at the same speed and direction as the wind, there’s nothing to feel!
Having ideal wind speed is absolutely crucial in hot air ballooning. It really can make all the difference during a flight. Consequently, it usually makes the difference between a flight or no flight at all!
That’s why it is so important to be able to recognize ideal flying wind. And when you have ideal wind, just go with the flow and enjoy your time amongst the clouds!
Wind at Different Altitudes
As we discuss ideal wind speed and dangerous wind speed, we’re actually talking about wind at ground level. As a balloon ascends, the wind speeds get faster, and that’s okay!
Perhaps the two most important parts of any hot air balloon flight are the takeoff and landing. Without a successful takeoff and landing, nothing else really matters all that much.
Of course, both of these events take place close to the ground. They also both require lower wind speeds to be successful. That’s why the primary focus on wind is the ground-level wind speed.
Theses winds at higher altitudes are called wind aloft. That just references the wind the balloon will experience once it’s aloft!
Once you’re in the air, it’s normal for wind speed to increase, and there’s nothing wrong with that! There’s a lot left up to the pilot when it comes to winds aloft, but it’s normally safe to never exceed 20 mph.
Pilots normally need to be aware of the wind up to 10,000 feet above ground level. Although many flights don’t ever go close to that high, it’s a good precautionary practice.
Plus, winds tend to be unwieldy. Winds at higher altitudes could easily descend to lower altitudes and vice versa. A lot of that is determined by the air temperature.
Knowing what the wind is like at 5,000 feet above ground level could end up coming in handy. It’s just another way to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to have safe ballooning experiences!
In the scientific world, this change in wind speed is called wind gradient. Wind gradient basically measures how fast the wind is moving horizontally at different heights.
In particular, wind gradient attempts to measure how wind speed is changing. With advanced technology, we can even track how cold air and warm air interact.
This ability to track warm and cold air is particularly useful as cold air is denser than warm air. Of course, warm air rises, so it’s incredibly helpful to be able to track these temperatures.
Wind gradients close to the earth are lower because of surface friction. Surface friction is caused by wind coming in contact with the lower pressures, different obstacles, and the curve of the earth itself.
This lower layer of wind is called the planetary boundary layer, and it can easily extend up to 10,000 feet above ground level. In fact, in warmer areas, it extends up to 16,000 feet above ground level.
Knowing about these higher altitude wind patterns and wind speeds is just as important as knowing about ground-level wind speed. During a hot air balloon flight, you’ll spend much more time at higher altitudes than lower ones.
Ignoring the wind at higher altitudes can lead to disaster. It is becoming of each pilot to be familiar with these concepts and apply them to help keep everyone safe.
That’s how hot air ballooning can remain safe and fun for everyone!
How to Judge the Wind
So how do pilots keep an eye on the wind? I mean, doesn’t the phrase just sound funny? Keep an eye on the wind…? Everyone knows you can’t see the wind!
Thankfully, there’s more than just our eyes to rely on when we’re trying to judge the wind. There’s actually several techniques and tools that allow pilots to keep up with what’s going on with the wind.
And as technology becomes more sophisticated, it becomes easier and easier to track the wind. That having been said, there are always going to be some tried and true methods that help us track the wind.
It’s like when Warren Buffet met Bill Gates many years ago. Bill wanted to convince Warren that he needed to invest in computer companies (presumably Microsoft) because computers would change everything.
Warren asked Bill, “Will it change chewing gum?. Bill responded in the negative, and Warren indicated that he would continue to invest in companies he could understand.
Likewise, in judging the wind, it’s better to stick to the methods that have been proven to work!
Of course, Warren Buffet now owns a huge amount of Apple stock, probably to Bill Gates chagrin. In hot air ballooning, there’s nothing wrong with using newer technology as long as that technology improves our ballooning experience!
With all that having been said, let’s look at some of the different techniques and tools, both old and new, that we can use to judge the wind!
Mini Balloons and… Shaving Cream?
That’s right folks! Mini balloons and shaving cream can help us figure out what is going on with the wind! These are some of the older techniques out there, but they sure do work!
Of course, you may be wondering how they work. Well, they’re used in basically the same way to accomplish the same thing, but in opposite directions!
Before takeoff, pilots can release mini helium-filled balloons and watch where they go. This helps them know which way the wind is blowing for the first couple hundred feet.
This trick is especially handy if the takeoff area is smaller or close to hazards. If you release the mini balloons and they fly straight into a powerline, you know it’s a bad idea to fly!
Once in the air, shooting a little shaving cream off the side can help the pilot know which way the wind is traveling just below the balloon. Just don’t forget to yell “fore!” before you drop the shaving cream!
There are several tools on the internet that you can use to keep up with the wind. Also, in the smartphone era, it’s easy to access these tools almost anywhere!
I say almost because some of our readers may get service from Sprint…
The first internet tool to be aware of is the weather radar. There are actually weather radar apps you can download that will give you an accurate, up to date look at weather conditions.
You can also look at the most recent surface observations. This can probably be found on the same app you would find the weather radar on.
Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with looking at the handy dandy 7-day forecast. This definitely isn’t an in-depth look, but it can give you a general idea.
Then there’s this neat website: BalloonCast. Just put in your location and get all the info you need! It tends to be very accurate, although it’s always good to double-check the old fashioned way!
And I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to check in on the wind using the internet. There are so many tools out there, just find the one you prefer! The internet is like an ocean; surf it!
Ah, common sense. The least common of all gifts bestowed upon mankind, common sense is important during every phase of hot air ballooning. This is especially true when getting a feel for the wind.
Now, when we talk about common sense, I’m not talking about licking your finger or dropping a lump of grass. There’s no specific practice here, just good old fashioned common sense.
Feels really windy? Probably shouldn’t fly. Hear tornado sirens blaring? Probably shouldn’t fly. See airbenders fighting off the Fire Nation? Probably shouldn’t fly.
Like my Dad used to say, it’s hard to teach common sense. You either have it or you don’t, so I won’t belabor this point too much. Just use common sense when you’re out there!
The Dangers of High Wind Speed
A favorite practice of drivers ed teachers all around the world is to spend hours telling horror stories about drivers who didn’t follow the law.
One of my friends had a teacher back in high school who showed videos of car crashes for the entire class every Friday. I bet a lot of people in that class were “sick” on Friday in that class.
The purpose of this section is not to tell horror stories or scare you into compliance. In fact, let’s take this moment to recognize just how safe hot air ballooning really is!
Hot air balloons are safer than cars, helicopters, motorcycles, boats, and airplanes. You’re less likely to get killed in a hot air balloon than you are just living in Chicago. Trust me. I would know.
So hot air balloons are really, really safe. But why?
Well, it certainly isn’t because of the hot air balloons themselves. There is nothing inherently safe about getting into a wicker basket that will be lifted thousands of feet into the air by a bag filled with hot air.
Hot air balloons are safe because they have safe pilots who follow good rules. Even with Nomex skirts and ripstop nylon and advanced burner systems, balloons just aren’t that safe without a good pilot.
Because of that, it’s important to be aware of the risks associated with flying, and how to avoid tragedy. With that in mind, let’s cover some of the dangers of high wind speed.
The most dangerous time to be caught in high wind is during takeoff and landing. These are when the balloon is most vulnerable to accidents. In particular, landing is very dangerous in high winds.
Even before takeoff, high winds can “dent” the envelope, and can sometimes cause the envelope to roll. A rolling envelope that is partially inflated can do serious damage.
During takeoff, a balloon can easily be blown into a tree, a building, or powerlines. Powerlines are the number one killer in hot air ballooning. Avoid them at all costs!
In the air, hot air balloons can get blown well past their intended landing area. Sometimes it’s a long way between feasible landing areas. You don’t want to get caught over a forest, lake, or city.
When landing, if the balloon is traveling at high speeds, there’s sure to be a rough impact upon landing. Once again, powerlines are to be avoided at all costs!
A rough landing can damage the balloon and injure the passengers. If a balloon gets “rolled” that is extremely dangerous!
If you follow the recommendations made throughout this article, you can avoid the dangers of high wind speed! Like a very wise man once said, be good, have fun, and in that order!