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What is a Hot Air Balloon?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

A hot air balloon is a relatively large vessel which allows for human flight. A large pouch of fabric is filled with air that is heated to cause it to lift. A basket beneath the balloon carries passengers and cargo, and the wind guides it through the air.

A modern hot air balloon is heated by a small propane heater mounted below a small opening to the balloon, but above the basket where passengers travel. As the air heats up, it becomes lighter than the air outside the balloon, causing the craft to rise up in the air. While direction cannot be controlled much in a normal hot air balloon, altitude can be managed by releasing hot air or changing the strength of the flame. For skilled ballooners, some steering can be accomplished simply by changing altitude into differing wind currents; the ability to read the wind is important for those who race balloons.

A colorful, modern hot air balloon.
A colorful, modern hot air balloon.

A hot air balloon can come in a wide range of sizes, depending on its purpose. Small cloud hoppers are intended for only one passenger, and may have a balloon with less than 30,000 cubic feet (9,144 cubic meters) of air space inside. In contrast, some enormous hot air balloons, intended for groups of over ten people, may have over 500,000 cubic feet (152,400 cubic meters) of air space within. An average craft, meant to hold two or three passengers and a pilot, has around 100,000 cubic feet (30,480 cubic meters) of space inside the balloon.

A number of hot air balloon and airship configurations were developed during the early years of aviation.
A number of hot air balloon and airship configurations were developed during the early years of aviation.

The first hot air balloon trip with a passenger was in November of 1783, manned by a scientist and a marquis. This makes the hot air balloon the oldest successfully implemented vessel for human flight. Originally, it was thought that smoke itself made the balloons rise, and so a smoky fire was used to fill it. The military applications of hot air balloons didn't take long to be noticed, and they were used for reconnaissance during the US Civil War, and widely used during World War I. Some are filled with pockets of lighter-than-air gas such as helium or hydrogen, and use heated air for additional lift. This type is known as a Rozier balloon.

A hot air balloon can be compared to an airship, which is essentially a balloon with a steering mechanism built in. Many airships do not rely on heated air for their buoyancy, however, but instead use a gas that is naturally lighter than air, such as hydrogen or helium. Airships are also known as zeppelins or dirigibles. Those built using the same principles as a hot air balloon, with the addition of a way to steer directionally, are often called hotships.

Since its comeback in the 1960s, traveling by hot air balloon has become an incredibly popular pastime in the United States and Europe. Because of the striking views and near silence of the rides, they are considered ideal for romantic outings. Over 3,000 licensed pilots operate in the United States alone, with more appearing every day.

Discussion Comments


You should see Cappadocia and its view with tens of hot air balloons in the air in the same time. It's magnificent.


I went in a hot air balloon ride in Maryland while visiting my sister, and it was unlike any other experience I've had. My heart felt like it was floating out of my chest, and I got tingly all over!

What I love about hot air balloons is the fact that they are really safe. You hardly ever hear about accidents involving them. You are basically riding in a basket attached to a giant parachute!


I have a fear of heights, so I would never get on a hot air balloon. The people who do are very brave in my eyes.

I get sweaty palms from just looking at hot air balloon pictures. People are not meant to be that high up in the sky. As you might guess, I also refuse to get on an airplane.


@giddion – I don't even think it's legal for something without proper training to fly a hot air balloon. I remember reading on a list of hot air balloon facts that students have to have a certain number of hours of training before they can become true pilots.

While it might be fun to go up without a pilot, think how you would feel if something went wrong. You would wish that you had an expert on board to save you!


Is it possible to rent a hot air balloon and fly it yourself? I'd feel a little weird spending all that time in a basket with a complete stranger, but I think it would be exhilarating to go up alone.


@ninetydegree - Hot air balloon flights are operated early in the morning because they need really stable winds to give you a smooth ride.

The early morning winds, just after sunrise, are the best for creating a hot air balloon ride you'll never forget.


I always wanted to ride a hot air balloon and thought it would be romantic, so I planned a surprise date for my boyfriend.

The first clue that this would be far from romantic was the time we had to meet; 5:00 in the morning!

The surprise factor was great (he was in total shock and tried not to look scared; he got points for that).

The two of us rode in the basket along with our captain. It was truly beautiful floating above neighborhoods so early in the morning. The light was foamy and the view, amazing.

When the heater whooshed (to lift us higher), the heat and the noise was awful. I was wishing I hadn't put hairspray on that morning, and worried I'd go up in flames at any moment.

Fearful of landing, I asked our captain to do a light touchdown so I could see how in the world we'd eventually land. He conceded and we touched lightly down on the grass before heading back up to our ultimate height of 3500 feet.

Overall, it was incredibly beautiful. But romantic? Well, maybe it was...I married my date about 6 months later.

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    • A colorful, modern hot air balloon.
      By: icholakov
      A colorful, modern hot air balloon.
    • A number of hot air balloon and airship configurations were developed during the early years of aviation.
      By: lynea
      A number of hot air balloon and airship configurations were developed during the early years of aviation.