Almost everyone who gets to take a close look at a balloon for the first time asks the pilot if it is not a terribly expensive thing to own and run. Yes, it is, although there are expensive and more expensive ways to fly... A brand new three-person sports balloon will typically cost up to 40.000 euro and will have a life expectancy of 300 to 400 flying hours. Add insurance, propane gas, the cost of the retrieve vehicle, annual airworthiness inspections and all other paperwork (it is an aircraft, so if you replace a screw or an O-ring, you need to fill in forms), a set aside for repairs in case the envelope gets ripped in thorn bushes or barbed wire after landing, champagne for first-time passengers, entry fees for prticipation in ballooning events, the associated travel costs, hotels, meals... Of course you can start with a pre-owned balloon (it will still amortize almost as much as a new one, but at least the initial investment is more modest), find some good used additional equipment (such as extra fuel tanks, an inflation fan) and add to your kit if you have managed to make a few paid passenger flights or when you find a small sponsor. And if you use a normal stationcar or a twin-cab van to retrieve the balloninstead of a big, macho SUV you'll save a bundle too. During my first years as a balloon owner, I drove all over Europe with just a middle-aged Opel Kadett and a small trailer - the only adaptation being good mud tires and heavy-duty shock absorbers. And of course there are costly and less expensive events. Some people (or their sponsors) can afford to travel all over the world for a handful of flights in exotic locations, and will stay in the best hotels. But there are also nice events with modest entry fees to be found within a day's travel by car. And you can also stay in a bed-and-breakfast.
Even then, it is still an expensive hobby. Total cost per flying hour is much higher than the cost of flying a 4-seat private airplane. Only a private helicopter is more expensive.
Is it dangerous?
As dangerous as the pilot. A hot-air balloon is an extremely safe aircraft, as it moves slowly, is soft and functions as its own parachute: when the burners fail, the balloon descends at roughly the same rate as a skydiver using a WW2-style parachute. But a balloon can be thrown around violently by thermals, turbulence associated with thunderstorms or mountains. Passengers can be tossed out of the basket during largely uncontrolled landings in thunderstorms or high wind. Before such a thing happens, though, the pilot usually has made a serious error judging the weather. Or the weather service did. Where weather is concerned, the expression goes that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but very few old bold pilots. At least not with all their bones still intact! The danger that all balloon pilots are most wary of, is that of powerlines. Not the big ones, but small local lines in rural areas which can be very difficult to spot. Hitting one can result in all kinds of unpleasantries. Having said that, making a balloon flight with an experienced and responsible pilot is still probably a lot less dangerous than driving the retrieve car! But there is always some degree of excitement and adrenalin involved when you start looking for a place to land.
Most people need a few years of training. In some countries the rules are stricter than in others. In the Netherlands, you need at least 16 instruction flights of an hour each, plus proof of at least one flight in ambient temperatures below zero degree Celsius, one in more than 20 degrees Celsius (as a hot-air balloon reacts very differently in winter and summer) and one flight at more than a thousand metres above sea level. You also need to pass a theoretical exam that is mostly identical to the one for private airplane pilots. Subjects include air law, navigation, meteorology, physical and psychological aspects of flying, instruments/materials and ballooning theory. Having done the required number of flights and having passed the theoretical exam and a checkout flight with an examiner, you need to do a solo flight before you can apply for a license. But before you can go solo, there is the hurdle of a full aeromedical examination. If your field of vision, night sight or hearing are not OK, or there is a hidden irregularity in your heart or brain, or any other of a dozen things that are tested comes out wrong, forget about flying a balloon. Better give up smoking (cigarettes and tanks full of flammable propane are not a very good combination anyway!). In practice, most people need about 30 instruction and practice flights before they get checked out. That usually takes two to three years. If you have to earn your instruction flights by crewing for another balloonist, put all social activities on hold for a few years and be prepared to go out ballooning every weekend and several evenings each week from April to October. Better make sure that your partner is as balloon-crazy as you, or you will have to find yourself a new spouse after a while.
A normal hot-air balloon can easily climb to 10.000 feet (3000 metres) above 'mean sea level' (MSL) with average load. It all depends on weight and temperature. In winter, you can generally go higher and further. Twenty thousand feet (six kilometres) is quite attainable in a standard balloon, provided you fly it lightly loaded (and take oxygen gear). For distance, the same thing applies more or less: the colder it gets, the less heat you need to put in the balloon, so the more fuel you can carry and the longer you can stay airborne. To travel fast and far, you usually need to go high as well. Most ordinary balloon flights last about one hour and up to 30 kilometres. Two to three hours and 50 to 100 kilometres is not particularly difficult (just exchange one passenger for two extra tanks of fuel), staying aloft for six hours and traveling more than 300 km is considered a 'golden' achievement.
Basically, you don't! But if you want to go anywhere specifically, you try to find differences in wind direction at different altitudes, make a mental (or even paper) note of them and then use those differences to reach your intended goal. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. The general rule of thumb in the Northern Hemisphere is that you need to climb to turn right, and descend to turn left. The difference may be many tens of degrees, or just a few degrees. And sometimes the atmosphere will trick you and it just won't work the way it is supposed to. Mountains and hills will complicate things, but will also make flights more varied and interesting. You need to use what nature provides you with, and make the best of that.
For a balloon, the minimum required instrumentation consists of an altimeter, a compass and an accurate watch (in many aircraft, there is still a mechanical chronometer bolted on the instrument panel; in a balloon one will usually carry a dedicated pilot's wristwatch). You always have to be able to tell how high you are flying, in what direction and for how long.
A good watch is the most vital instrument. After all, I can tell with my own eyes whether I am flying low, high or very high, I can feel the wind blowing in my face from below (!) when I descend and by looking at the map I can see where I am and roughly where I am going. What my eyes can not tell me accurately is how late it is and thus how much longer my fuel supply will last or how much time I have left before official sunset. Hence the watch. Preferably a military style 'tool watch' with a very clear dial and a rotating bezel to mark the time (take-off, fuel tank switch or official sunset for instance).
In some countries, a temperature gauge to tell the internal
temperature in the top of the balloon is also a requirement. And
when flying in controlled airspace, you need an airband radio
to communicate with air traffic control (so you can tell them how high you are, and where you are going, and how long you expect to continue). A die-hard sport balloonist on a shoestring budget can fly a balloon using a good mountaineering type altimeter and a hand compass carried around the neck. Assuming he also has that decent wristwatch. Actually, I started that way.
Modern hot-air balloons are usually equipped with an electronic set of instruments that combine an accurate altimeter with a variometer (a very sensitive vertical speed indicator also used by glider pilots), some type of temperature warning device (at minimum, a warning flag fixed in the top of the balloon with a melt link that will cause it to drop into the basket when you overheat the balloon), and a VHF airband radio. Of course the propane tanks each have their own fuel level indicators, but these only start indicating levels below about 40%. The burners are equipped with pressure gauges that tell you if there is enough vapour pressure in the fuel system to assure a good flow of liquid propane to the burner.
These days, we often carry a GPS satellite navigation receiver as well so we can always know where we are and how fast we are moving where. Competitive pilots like myself who want to do a lot of manoeuvering spray globs of shaving cream overboard and watch their track as they float down. It is a great way to determine your possible flight track before you start descending, and fun to watch too. I call it my 'poor man's GPS, or Gillette Positioning System'...
How many people fit in the basket?
The volume of the balloon determines how much weight it can carry, and baskets are built to a suitable size for the number of people (plus a fair amount of fuel) the balloon can carry. A typical private sports balloon like ours can carry up to 3 people including the pilot, but will often be flown with just the pilot and one passenger in hot summer weather or when a longer than average flight is planned. Commercial passenger operations these days use balloons that typically carry between 6 and 16 passengers (there are even a few balloons around that can carry up to 30 people, and need two pilots). Ten passengers is quite normal. The larger balloons have baskets that are divided in several compartments so the passengers will not fall on top of each other on landing.
The smallest balloons are the solo types that have done away with a basket completely. A pilot flying such a 'cloud hopper' is suspended under the burner in a skydiver-type harness, carrying a single fuel tank on his back. A 'hopper walkover' occurs when a cloud hopper pilot literally walks up the side and over the top of a large balloon while suspended under his own little balloon.
Questions about ballooning? Send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.