Hot air balloons: safe?

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Hot air balloons rise when heated, and pilots control their ascent and descent with a valve. They travel with the wind and are safest in low wind speeds. Weather is a concern, and pilots need a license. Balloon rides are safe if passengers follow directions, but not recommended for those with vertigo or a fear of heights.

Hot air balloons work on the basic scientific principle that hot air rises. Many people enjoy ballooning as a sport, and some people also enjoy it as a relaxing recreational activity. In general, hot air balloons are quite safe and certainly safer than some forms of aviation.
Before we look into the safety of hot air balloons, it can be helpful to understand how they work. Each balloon has a large bag called an envelope, attached to a sturdy gondola or wicker basket. To obtain sufficient lift, the air in the bag is heated with the help of a flame. As the air warms up, the balloon rises. The pilot can control the ascent by opening a valve to let the air out, causing the balloon to drop again. When the flight is over, the pilot slowly blows out enough air for the balloon to drop to the ground.

Like hang gliders and kites, hot air balloons travel with the wind. Pilots have some control over their direction through their altitude, as different air currents rush in different directions. Typically, pilots choose the early hours of the morning to fly, as wind speeds are still low. Low wind speeds make ballooning much safer and flights are more enjoyable, as the balloon moves smoothly, rather than being tossed about.

Weather is the most important concern for ballooning safety. Strong winds and extreme weather conditions such as sleet and snow are potentially very dangerous. An experienced pilot will not fly in these conditions. Even good pilots always check their equipment before starting a flight and often carry reserve fuel tanks and other redundant equipment with them for safety.

Generally, pilots who want to fly in a hot air balloon must obtain a pilot’s license. This requirement varies in different countries, but in many countries there are specific courses and exams that pilots must take to operate these types of aircraft. A private license allows a pilot to fly with a few friends, while a commercial license allows a pilot to fly larger balloons and receive financial compensation for his time.

Hot air balloon rides can be great fun and are very safe as long as the passengers follow the pilot’s directions. However, people who suffer from vertigo or a fear of heights may want to skip the experience.

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