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Weather to Fly

Wind (words to look for in forecast:  gusts, breezy, windy, blustery, small craft advisory, strong wind, high wind warnings, gale warning)

Wind is the most critical factor in safe ballooning; it effects every phase of a flight.  More balloon flights are cancelled due to wind than for any other reason.  Balloons fly best in light and stable winds of 4-6 miles per hour or less.  Here are the reasons wind is such an issue:

  • During inflation the balloon is filled with cold air using a fan.  The balloon fabric is just a giant sail; and fast winds make it almost impossible to fill the balloon.  The wind will cave the side of the balloon in and the resulting sail effect places tremendous loads of both the fabric and the basket.
  • Strong winds in flight can take the balloon father than the pilot has room to fly.  Remember that the winds aloft are generally stronger than the winds at the surface.  Since a balloon flight path is dictated solely by the wind’s speed and direction, this can be an issue if high winds carry the balloon into areas that are unsuitable for landing.  Such areas include:  metropolitan areas, large expanses of forest, restricted airspace and large bodies of water.
  • Lastly, there is the landing.  A balloon’s speed across the ground will be the speed of the wind it is flying in.  High wind speeds mean that the pilot needs a larger area to land in.  A balloon relies on the friction of the basket dragging along the ground to come to a stop as balloons do not have brakes.  In a high wind landing you are trying to stop 3-10 tons, all moving at the speed of the wind, without brakes – the basket will skip, drag and bounce along the ground.  It will eventually layover on the side while continuing to drag along the ground.  While impressive, just not much fun.

Winds Aloft:  The winds on the surface are just one of our concerns.  We have to think three dimensionally and consider what the wind is doing at altitude as well.  This is perhaps the most confusion aspect for the passengers. Most passengers do not understand why a flight is cancelled due to wind when there is not even a hint of a breeze on the ground.  Pilots look at winds aloft to tell them is they might encounter issues such as wind shear, turbulence or strong surface winds later on.  Even if there are no winds to speak of at the surface, the winds aloft may drive the pilot’s decision not to fly.

Poor Visibility:  (Words to look for in a forecast:  foggy, hazy, and misty).  Hot air balloons are designated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as Visual Flight Rules (VFR) certified.  That means we must have a certain amount of visibility to fly legally.  If we don’t have it, we can’t fly.

Rain and Storms:  The decision not to fly in rain or storms seems a simple one – of course, we don’t!  What isn’t so simple is why our flight may be cancelled when no storm or rain actually happens in the area.  We must often make our decision based on a forecast or what is happening on radar in the surrounding areas.  Dangerous lightening, damaging wind, rain, even hail can be happening close and our flying area may appear very different from the forecast and weather radar.  Wind gusts can occur 75 to 100 miles away from an actual storm and create winds that are extremely dangerous to a balloon and everyone around it.  Once again, it is the wind!  If storms are forecast or there are storms within 100 miles we will reschedule flights.

We ask for passengers’ understanding if a flight must be rescheduled due to weather.  Our pilots are just as disappointed as you when the weather causes a delay or cancellation.