Why Do Hot Air Balloons Fly in the Morning?

You decide to book a hot air balloon ride and you’re told that you’ll have to fly early in the morning. You’d rather not, so you call another ballooning company and hear the same response. That’s kind of strange, you think. Why do hot air balloons fly in the morning?

Hot air balloons will fly at the times of day when the winds are least and the air is stillest. That includes early morning as well as later in the day before dusk. Any flights in between those hours are uncommon and will only occur when conditions are placid.

You may have more questions about when you can and can’t schedule your hot air balloon ride, and we’re here to answer them. Keep reading to learn more about why balloon companies only send out hot air balloons at specific hours as well as when if ever you can fly in the afternoon. 

Why Early Morning Flights on a Hot Air Balloon?

At first, when you booked your hot air balloon ride, you had assumed all the afternoon slots were taken. Yet when you looked at the schedule a month out, no afternoon rides were available. As we touched on in the intro, this is a deliberate move by the hot air balloon company.

Wind and hot air balloons don’t mix. Although a hot air balloon can weigh 800 pounds and often more, in strong winds, that doesn’t matter as much. A heavy gust can cause the balloon pilot to lose control of the vessel. You could go careening into trees and other sharp obstacles that can pop the envelope. Landings might be rougher, which can cause injuries.

This is why, on an especially windy day, a hot air balloon company will cancel all rides for the day. Well, they should do that, as willingly flying in bad weather is often a recipe for disaster.

Okay, so why only early mornings for your hot air balloon flight? Is there less wind earlier in the morning?

Yes, that’s exactly it. 

As the sun rises, it warms up the ground. However, this doesn’t happen evenly across the ground’s surface. A byproduct of warming is the development of air thermals, which are rising air columns that begin on the ground. As the air moves upward, the air above the thermals is now displaced. This can lead to wind drafts in downward or upward directions. 

Cloud streets can also form due to convection rolls. A convection roll just means the cool air has sunk lower and the warm air has risen higher. You may remember us talking about convection in our post about hot air balloons flying in warmer or cooler weather.

Although the warm air can rise pretty high, eventually it will reach the atmosphere and be forced into cooling down. While the warm air cools, it also condenses, which produces clouds. Yet the cool air that was lower in the sky that’s now adjacent to the clouds prevents further clouds from appearing. 

It takes a combination of wind and several sinking and rising air masses for cloud streets to appear. Between those and the changing wind conditions, flying later in the day can pose risks to all involved.  

Why Do Hot Air Balloons Fly Before Sunset?

Following that logic, if the wind patterns get more unpredictable as the day goes on, how can you then safely ride in a hot air balloon in the waning hours of daylight? Well, because the daylight hours are indeed waning. 

Remember, it takes the sun’s influence to create air thermals since the sun must warm the ground for the thermals to develop. As the sun begins setting, it’s disappearing and so too is the light it shed on the ground below. With less sunlight on the ground, the warm thermal gusts will stop and conditions will become calm again. 

Do keep in mind that just because it’s after sunset doesn’t mean you’re flying in the dark. Depending on the time of year and where in the country you live, it will take at least 70 minutes for darkness after the sun is gone. In some instances, it’s as long as 100 minutes. Your balloon pilot will be aware of how much visibility they have and plan the hot air balloon ride accordingly. 

Can You Ever Fly in the Afternoon in a Hot Air Balloon?

Don’t take all this to mean that you can never fly in the middle of the afternoon in a hot air balloon. There are certainly some exclusions, so let’s talk more about these now.

The first instance in which you may be able to go hot air ballooning in the afternoon is in the winter. Although the sun may be out in the winter, rarely is the force of the sun strong enough to create the air thermals that lead to unpredictable wind patterns for the balloon pilot. 

Yes, hot air ballooning is a wintertime activity if you’re interested in doing it. We wrote about it on the blog before, but ballooning in the winter is a very unique experience. You do have to dress for the weather, but the heat of the burner system over your head will prevent you from shivering during the whole ride even if sunlight is sparse. 

Outside of wintertime ballooning, you could be permitted to fly on a warmer afternoon in specific conditions. On an overcast day in the summer or fall, if the sun hasn’t created air thermals, then your balloon pilot might give you the greenlight. Overcast weather must be that which is only cloudy. If there’s a risk of rain or other inclement weather, then the balloon will not take off.

Days with very low winds into the afternoon might also be conducive to flying a hot air balloon, but you’d need a perfectly still day. 

Is It Better to Fly Early in the Morning or Before Sunset?

Now that you know the two most optimal times for a hot air balloon ride, you’d like to schedule yours sooner than later. You’re not sure whether to go ballooning first thing in the morning or later as the sun sets. You want a memorable experience that’s sure to delight your partner or family. Which time should you choose?

While you can’t go wrong either way, here are some pros and cons of flying early in the morning versus later in the day. 

Early Morning Hot Air Ballooning Pros

When you go hot air ballooning in the early morning, it’s like someone hit the pause button on the world. Everything feels still, calm, and peaceful as lots of people are still sleeping. You’ll love sitting in the gondola and watching the beautiful world around you. This is also a great time to capture some photos or videos from several thousand feet up.

If you planned your hot air ballooning flight in the summertime and you’re worried about all the heat from the propane burners leaving you a sweaty mess, then flying early in the morning is best. Although residual humidity could be in the air, most summer mornings are pretty cool until the sun comes up. 

Another perk of flying early in the morning is that if you’re nervous about ballooning, you won’t have much time to think about it. Your brain and body are still waking up. You might not have had your first cup of coffee yet or maybe you just had one cup. Your anxieties didn’t get a chance to take hold. By the time you’re up in the sky, you realize that hey, hot air ballooning is not as scary as you thought.

When you’re back on level ground, since you ballooned so early in the day, you now have the rest of the day to do whatever you want. If you’re vacationing or traveling and you have a tight itinerary, you’ll appreciate the availability. 

Early Morning Hot Air Ballooning Cons

Let’s just get the most obvious downside to morning hot air balloon flights out of the way now. That is, you have to wake up early. How early will depend on the ballooning company, but we’d expect it to be quite an early morning. If you’re going hot air ballooning on the weekend or while on vacation, waking up earlier than you want to can be a pain.

If you don’t plan your morning right, you could be on the balloon without having had anything to eat. Although motion sickness is very uncommon on a hot air balloon, your stomach could be upset without any food. 

Late-Day Hot Air Ballooning Pros

Should you choose to schedule your hot air balloon ride later in the day before the sun sets, you’re in for a treat. If you have a longer ride booked, then you may be able to watch the sun as it gradually begins receding in the sky. It’s a very romantic moment, so if you’re thinking of proposing to your honey, now would be a perfect time!

Since most of your day is behind you at this point, you don’t have to worry about being groggy from sleep like you might be if you go hot air ballooning first thing in the morning. You’ve had time to think and plan for the trip and get excited. 

Late-Day Hot Air Ballooning Cons

However, if you’re more of a nervous type, then now you have all day to dread the balloon flight rather than just getting it over with as you would in the morning. You know there’s nothing to be afraid of when it comes to hot air ballooning, but you can’t shake your nervousness. We think that will change once you’re up in the sky.

Another downside is that if it’s a particularly warm day, without the sun having fully set, you have to expect a warmer hot air balloon ride than if you were to schedule one early in the morning. If you wait until September, by late afternoon, the temperatures are usually quite cool. However, September is the busiest month of the year for hot air ballooning companies, so make sure you book early! 

Final Thoughts

Hot air balloons will typically take flight at two times of the day, first thing in the morning and late in the day before sunset. These are the periods when the sun heats the ground the least and thus you’re less likely to have air thermals that can lead to unpredictable wind patterns. Afternoon flights are available on some occasions, but you’re better off picking a morning or late day slot instead. 

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Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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