The first impression that comes to mind when we see hot air balloons is the free spirit and grace of floating where ever the wind decides to take you. But there is much more to a hot air balloon launch and flight that just riding the wind.
Hot air balloons are considered aircraft and are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just as fixed-wing aircraft are. Hot air balloon pilots must pass a yearly in-flight certification to maintain his or her license as a commercial pilot. The Great Falls Balloon only invites pilots who have met these qualifications.
The balloons themselves must pass a yearly safety inspection which includes testing the fabric of the balloon, fuel system, integrity of the basket, burners and all other related equipment before the balloon receives its annual airworthiness certificate to fly.
Unlike fixed-wing aircraft, a hot air balloon is dependent upon fair weather. Ideal conditions are calm winds below 8 mph and cool temperatures. Since wind and heat come with the sun, the ideal time for a balloon to fly is early in the morning before the sun gets too high in the sky and in the early evening as the sun begins to descend. The exception to this rule would be wintertime flying when the sun is less intense.
To inflate the balloon, pilots use inflation fans to fill the balloon with outside air. This process is called cold packing. When the balloon is inflated enough the pilot uses his burner to heat the inside air to approximately one hundred degrees warmer than the outside temperature. This is when the balloon takes shape and is ready to fly on a new adventure.
It is the heat inside the balloon that makes the balloon rise. If the outside air temperature is too high, the pilot would need to add more heat to the balloon to compensate. High heat can cause damage to the fabric of the balloon. This is why balloons rarely fly in the heat of the day.
Hot air balloon pilots are always aware of the weather and the function of their equipment. The safety of the people in the basket is a top priority for the pilots always have the final say in whether the conditions are right for them to fly.
The experience that our visitors get at the Great Falls Balloon Festival is rare in the ballooning world. At most festivals, spectators are not allowed in the area where balloons are launching.
However, this up-close-and-personal venue also poses some challenges. Our main launch site is small. Our visiting balloons are huge. Our visitors are smitten. But our pilots and crews need space. A lot of it. They also need to be able to see and hear each other to keep themselves and everyone else on the field safe.
Maintaining a safe environment is a top priority, and it is crucial to the future of the festival.
Below are some things to keep in mind when visiting the festival:
THE BIG 4:
Don’t Smoke. Our visiting balloons carry tanks full of propane gas. Due to the obvious fire hazard created by the use of propane gas, as well as the risk of damage to the balloon envelopes, smoking is prohibited.
Don’t bring your dog. Or your cat, or bird, or snake. With the exception of service animals, NO PETS of any kinds are allowed on festival grounds.
Don’t bring your wheels. This includes bikes, skateboards, scooters, roller skates and—yes—unicycles. The level of foot traffic on the walkway around the park is very high, especially at launch time.
Don’t drink. No alcohol is allowed on festival grounds.
Launches are scheduled for 6 am and 6 pm throughout the weekend and are always weather permitting. This includes wind and clouds as well as more obvious conditions like rain and lightning.
In the event of questionable conditions, Our Balloonmeister will wait as long as they can in hopes of a turn for the better. However, a launch decision may be delayed by up to an hour if weather conditions are changing. Ideally, the balloons will launch by 6:45 p.m. This time frame provides a fair ride for our passengers and gets everyone back on the ground before we run out of daylight.
Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston is our main launch site. Edward Little High School in Auburn will also act as an additional launch site for some regular shape balloons if needed.
ON THE MIC
Live stage performances will end at 6 pm and will resume following the launch. As the balloons arrive on the field, visitors will learn about each balloon and pilot from our on-field announcer.
BE READY TO RELOCATE
If you’ve staked out a spot in the center of the field … you probably won’t get to stay there. At launch time, if you’re on the main field at Simard-Payne Memorial Park, there is a good possibility that you will be asked to move; and maybe more than once.
Additionally, please give balloon vehicles the right-of-way when they are entering/exiting the field. We also ask that you take care not to step on the fabric of the balloon envelope when the balloons are on the ground.
Specials fly only in the morning. At our evening launches, the specials will inflate and stay at the field to glow for the crowd. They are large, complex and hard to pack up in the dark.
This ground-level light show is a crowd favorite! Following the Friday evening launch (usually around 9 p.m.) some of our visiting balloons will return to the field, inflate and light their burners for a ground-level light show.
Chasing balloons can be an exciting way to participate in the festival. Keep your focus on the road if you spot a balloon while driving. Pull off to the side of the road to watch the balloon safely. And be careful not to drive or walk onto private property without the landowner’s permission.
We ask that everyone involved in the festival—including spectators, volunteers, and balloonists—be respectful of landowners’ rights and responsibilities.
When the weather permits, tethered rides are available for $10–$15/person. Tethered rides typically begin in the late afternoon (exact time is dependent on temps and/or winds).
There is an ATM available at Simard-Payne Memorial Park, near the Information/Souvenir Booth.
WHERE TO STAY & EAT
What are hot air balloons made of?
The bag or envelope is made of a reinforced fabric called rip-stop nylon (some balloons are made of dacron). The material is very lightweight but very strong. The fabric is coated to prevent leaks.
What are the baskets made of?
The baskets are made from rattan or wicker. The material is lightweight and very durable. Each basket is individually woven by hand.
How fast does it go?
As fast or as slow as the wind. Since the balloon has no forward propulsion system, its speed is determined entirely by the speed of the wind. That is why balloon competitions are strictly for accuracy, not for speed.
How high does it go?
The balloons will fly from ground level to anywhere from tree level to a couple of thousand feet above ground level, depending on wind direction and speed.
When is the best time to fly?
Usually just after sunrise and one or two hours before sunset. This is the time of day when the winds are calmest and the air the most stable.
How long can the balloon stay up?
It depends. Normally, the balloon carries enough fuel to remain aloft for 1 to 2 hours, but factors like outside air temperature, the weight being carried in the basket and weather conditions determine the duration of the flight. Our pilots try to get in at least 45 minutes of air-time each flight.
What kind of fuel is used?
Propane is kept in pressurized tanks in the basket. The balloon carries 30-40 gallons of liquid propane. It is carried under pressure through flexible hoses to the burner. When the valves are opened, the propane atomizes and is ignited by a pilot light in the burner. The flame may shoot out as much as ten to twenty feet, making a loud whoosh.
How do you get back?
With the help of friends, who drive a chase vehicle. The chase crew will follow the flight of the balloon (as well as existing roads allow) and should be on hand to make the recovery when the balloon touches down.
What should I wear?
We recommend wearing casual clothing and comfortable shoes. Consider light layers of warm clothing so you can easily adjust to the temperature as the sun comes up. The coolest you will be is on the ground. Once you’re in flight, the burners tend to keep the baskets nice and warm.
Due to weather conditions, the best times for balloon launches are 6 a.m. for morning launches and 6 p.m. for evening launches.
Launches are always weather permitting and times may vary depending on conditions.
The Moonglow (hot air balloons tethered and lit up with propane) is scheduled for Friday night (usually around 9 p.m.) after the balloons return from the evening launch.