You’ve enjoyed learning about hot air ballooning on this blog, enough so that you’d like to schedule a ride someday soon. Yet one fear that keeps welling up inside you is the thought of the hot air balloon having a hole in it. Would the balloon start sinking rapidly in that situation?
If a hot air balloon gets a hole in it, the warm air leakage would cause the balloon to begin descending. However, provided the burner system still worked, the balloon pilot could reintroduce hot air intermittently so the descent is a gradual one.
In this article, we’ll explain further what would happen should the envelope puncture as well as how likely that is to happen. The information in this post should alleviate this particular ballooning concern, so make sure you keep reading!
If Your Hot Air Balloon Has a Hole in It, What Would Happen?
Before we start, we just want to say that hot air balloons already have holes in them. The bottom of the envelope–which is the technical term for the balloon itself–has a wide opening for the burners to send heat into. At the top of the envelope is another opening called the deflation port, which is a vent that hot air exits through.
Yet those are the holes that are supposed to be there. You’re more worried about something puncturing the hot air balloon or the material otherwise ripping. The envelope was mostly self-contained before, but now it’s got a gaping wound, so to speak, that’s causing a loss of air.
This sounds like a disaster scenario, right? Yet you’d be surprised.
If you remember from our article on how hot air balloons land, we talked about how the balloon pilot has to decrease the warm air to the envelope to bring the balloon down to level ground. As a quick refresher, hot air balloons include a burner system with one to two burners if not more. The burners are filled with propane that evaporates from a liquid into a gas when heated.
So let’s get back to your most dreaded scenario, that the envelope has a leak and it’s losing hot air. Assuming the rate of air loss is not at a high pressure (indicated in PSI), then you end up in a situation very much like opening the deflation port to let out the hot air.
The warm air is coming out, so the balloon is losing altitude. The balloon pilot would not touch the deflation port, as doing so would only increase the rate of hot air loss and make your descent occur more quickly.
Instead, what the balloon pilot would do is treat the hole in the envelope like they had the deflation port open. They’d use the blast valve to send more hot air into the envelope, maybe doing so slightly more often than they would in a controlled landing scenario since hot air is moving right out of the envelope.
Speaking of landing, where would that occur? Well, usually, the hot air balloon pilot is in touch with their ground crew to select a place to land. They try to pick a spot that’s near a road yet away from animals, power lines, and other hazards.
Since your balloon has a hole in it and is leaking, the balloon pilot doesn’t have as much luxury in choosing your landing place. If they can still communicate with the ground crew, they will do so to make a quick decision on where the safest spot is to settle. Then they’ll land you there.
The landing should be safe, as after all, the balloon pilot can still use the burner system and other parts of the balloon. That said, compared to a normal landing, in an emergency, there certainly exists the possibility for a rougher landing.
What Can Cause Holes in a Hot Air Balloon?
Why would a hot air balloon tear in the first place? There are a handful of reasons, and almost all of them are in the control of the ballooning company and/or the balloon pilot. Let’s talk more about these reasons now.
Cheap Balloon Material
Hot air balloons, given their hulking size, are not low-priced. The average cost is anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 and up. We wrote a post on the blog highlighting balloon costs that you can check out here.
To reduce expenses, some hot air balloon companies might buy a cheap, flimsy envelope. The heaviest-duty envelopes are built from ripstop nylon with fire-resistant qualities. The gores or panels of the envelope are connected with load tape and tough stitching so the panels are unlikely to separate and the envelope itself won’t fall apart.
Any material that’s lesser than ripstop nylon could tear more easily. If you have concerns about the envelope of the hot air balloon you’re going to ride in, we recommend contacting the ballooning company and asking more about their balloons.
The hot air balloon includes an altimeter the balloon pilot is supposed to check regularly throughout your ride. Once you get over 3,000 feet in the air, wind strength increases. Whereas the balloon pilot can predict the wind speeds and strength when at a lower altitude, at this height, working with the wind becomes more difficult.
Your balloon has a higher chance of being battered around, weakening the envelope and increasing the risk of a hole or several appearing.
Bumpy Takeoff and/or Landing
Although you don’t have to worry about trees when flying more than 1,000 feet up, at ground level, those obstacles are very much a threat. The balloon pilot should not take off anywhere close to trees, weathervanes, or any other sharp objects that can scratch and tear at the envelope. That goes for when landing the balloon as well.
They also must avoid power lines, as the electricity from these potentially live wires can be dangerous for the balloon, the crew onboard, and the riders.
Flying in Bad Weather
Although it can be irritating when your hot air balloon ride gets grounded due to weather concerns, you should thank the balloon pilot for their prioritization of safety. Outside of high winds, weather such as pelting rain is also a hazard that can damage the envelope and possibly increase its risk of tearing.
Long-Term Wear and Tear
If your hot air balloon flies at temperatures not exceeding 250 degrees Fahrenheit, then the envelope could last 400 to 500 hours before the balloon pilot should get the envelope replaced. The cooler the temperatures during flight, the more time you can get out of the envelope.
Even still, that doesn’t mean the envelope is made for years and years of consecutive use. If you do quiz the ballooning company about their envelopes, make sure you ask when the envelope was last replaced.
Do You Have to Worry about Your Hot Air Balloon Getting a Hole in It?
You’ve probably been wondering as you’ve read just how likely is it that a hot air balloon will get a hole in it and begin leaking. Not very. We’ll again cite a 2016 report from the journal Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance to back this up.
In that report, the journal quotes National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB data about United States hot air balloon crashes between 2000 and 2011, which is 12 years of data. Only 78 hot air balloon accidents occurred with 518 people involved overall. Of all the crashes, five deaths resulted and 91 significant injuries.
Our blog has also talked about hot air ballooning safety, providing more stats not covered by the dataset from the Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance journal. Some of these incidents also occurred outside of the US.
For example, there was one accident in 2012 that occurred in the Ljubljana Marshes in Slovenia in which six people died out of 32 riders. The accident was attributed to a sudden thunderstorm.
Also in 2012 was a New Zealand hot air balloon crash with 11 deaths. The balloon pilot hit power lines when landing and none of the passengers survived. The pilot didn’t follow standard landing procedures because he was apparently under the influence of drugs at the time.
In 2016 in Maxwell, Texas, 16 people died when hot air ballooning because the balloon pilot decided to fly despite the inclement weather. The day of the incident was very foggy with low clouds, neither of which is conducive for ballooning. Once again, this balloon pilot was under the influence of drugs.
Yes, these are scary stories, but we’re telling them to you to prove that out of all the factors that can cause a hot air balloon to crash, a leaking envelope is historically not one of them.
Although it’s not particularly likely, the hot air balloon or envelope could be ripped open. If such a situation ever did occur, the balloon pilot would use the blast valve to send warm air to the envelope so they could bring the balloon down to the ground with control. We hope this post helped you see how safe hot air ballooning can be and that you don’t have to worry about holes in the envelope!