Web Exclusive: How do hot air balloons work?

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The very basics of how a hot air balloon works is, hot air rises in a fabric bag and lifts the balloon off the ground. But being a balloon pilot is more complicated than that.

“The way we steer the balloon is, we use the currents up in the sky—the wind,” said Capt. Walt Rudy, a balloon pilot, “So wind is much like water, where water likes to seek the lowest point. Air is the same way, especially cold, dense air. What cold, dense air wants to do is flow down a valley. When we flew this morning, the predominant direction of the wind was actually coming from the west coming towards the east. But, if we stayed low enough, we stayed in that cold, dense air mass, and we were able to follow the valley down. So we went the direction that was different than all the other balloons this morning.”

Capt. Walt Rudy is a balloon pilot from Wadworth, OH. He came to Morgantown for the Balloons Over Morgantown event.

“We don’t have steering wheels, so we can’t turn it. We just adjust our altitude to find the winds that will take us in whatever direction we want to go. Sometimes they’re there. Most times they’re there, but sometimes they’re not because weather is—there’s a lot to it. So what is forecast isn’t what is necessarily what we get, but we have to deal with what we get.”

Setting up the balloon is pretty straightforward. First, the hoses from the propane tank are fed up the sides of the basket and hooked up to the burner at the top. Then, the basket is tipped over on its side and the fabric bag is clipped to the top of it. The crew will then lay out the fabric bag, and gas powered fans will inflate the balloon, called a cold inflate. After the balloon is inflated enough, they turn on the flame in spurts to get the balloon and the basket upright.

In order to become a balloon pilot, you must receive a license from the Federal Aviation Administration, much like flying a plane. There’s a private certification and a commercial certification. Flying balloons is an expensive hobby, but the freedom of the open air and the fantastic views from above make it worth it for balloon pilots.

The Balloons Over Morgantown event continues this weekend until Sunday. Remember to say hello if you see a balloon floating overhead, and be kind to the pilot if you find a balloon in your backyard.

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