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Demystifying hot air balloons

Hot air balloons, located at the heart of our festival, are without a doubt one of the most intriguing aircrafts. Impressive in size and rich in color, hot air balloons have always amazed young and old. But how do they work? What enables this gigantic balloon to go up in the sky, and to then land many kilometers further? These are some of the questions Daniel Turcotte, a pilot for nearly 30 years, and a Balloonmeister for the International Balloon Fest since 1998, answered in order to enlighten us.

Daniel Turcotte

Q: What is a Balloonmeister and where does the word come from?

A: The word Balloonmeister comes from the German and exists since the very first balloon festivals. The Balloonmeister is in charge of establishing whether or not the balloons will take off!

Q: Do hot air balloons all function the same way?

A: Hot air balloons, like the one we can see during the festival, do. However, there are three types of balloons: hot air balloons, gas balloons, and Rozière balloons, that combine both the usage of hot air and gaz. I will only be focussing on hot air balloons, as it is this type that you will be able to admire from the 13th to the 21st of august.

Q: What are the different components of the hot air balloon?Ballon

A: A hot air balloon can be divided in three parts: the envelope, the basket and the burner. The envelope is the cloth, the big colored balloon. Made up of nylon, the envelope is fireproof and tear resistant. Obviously, the cloth loses some of its properties with time, which is why the durability of a balloon will vary between 200 and 600 hours of flight, depending on the nylon’s quality. The basket is the area where the passengers hop in to live the ballooning experience. It is built from wicker because it is a very resistant and light material that easily keeps its shape. As for the burners, they are linked to the gas tanks and warm up the air caught in the envelope.

Q: What is the phenomenon behind the balloon’s elevation?

A: You’ve probably already heard that warm air being lighter than cold air. In fact, warm air expands. The air mass is therefore distributed amongst a greater volume, becoming lighter than the ambient air, which is denser. Result: the balloon goes up!

Q: What are the ideal weather conditions for a balloon flight?

A: First of all, you have to avoid thermals. Thermals are the result of sunlight absorbed by the ground that creates warm air columns in certain spots. This is why it is best to fly in early mornings or in late afternoons, since the sun not hitting the ground so directly, therefore not storing as much heat. Furthermore, it is preferable to fly when the temperature is cooler, considering that the air inside the balloon has to be warmer then the ambient air for the balloon to rise in the sky. It accordingly becomes difficult to fly during heat waves. Obviously, it cannot rain, because water makes the balloon heavier. As a matter of fact, there can’t be any storm cells in a 25 nautical mile (close to 50 km) radius from the site. Finally, when it comes to the wind, it has to be low to the ground (less than 8 knots / 16 kmh) in order to enable the inflation of the balloon. In the air, a minimum of wind is required, unless you care to stay put! Flotille

Q: Can we navigate a hot air balloon?

A: Yes, to a certain point. Due to the force of Coriolis, the balloon will always have a tendency to the right as it goes up. Also, it’s possible to find different winds depending on the altitude, giving a new direction to the balloon when they are followed.

Q: How far can a hot air balloon go in one trip?

A: It’s difficult to put an exact number on it: it always depends of the speed of the wind as well as how heavy the basket is.

Q: How do you become a Balloonmeister?

A: It is crucial that Balloonmeisters have an excellent knowledge of aerial transportation. They are consequently often plane pilots at first, and have more than 500 flight hours of hot air balloons under their belts.

Q: What was the most unusual place where you landed a balloon?

A: A women had received a balloon flight for her birthday. I was able to land the balloon in her backyard, in the middle of all of her guests! She simply couldn’t believe it!

Daniel definitely has a passion for hot air balloons! Maybe will you have the chance to wave him hello on the site of the festival, as he will be giving the take off signal to the 125 balloons that will color the sky of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu…

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