What's on Tap

What's on Tap

Balloon pilots choose caution over thrill

Posted May 28
Updated May 29

When the sun is peeking out and a cool breeze is blowing, it might seem like a good day for a flight, but that's not always the case when your vehicle is a hot air balloon.

The speed and direction of a hot air balloon is controlled entirely by the speed of the wind. Pilot John Moran said that the balloons can travel up to 30 to 40 knots once up in the air, but people in the basket won't feel the wind because they're moving with it.

"The only reason you feel the wind on the ground is because you're stationary and it's moving," Moran said.

On the ground though, even a small wind gust can make it difficult to inflate the balloon that acts like a sail. On Saturday night at the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest, winds were not only strong but were blowing in an undesirable direction toward trees and a nearby power plant, causing all but two pilots to remain on the ground during the scheduled mass ascension.

Moran said there have been many times where paying customers have to stay on the ground because of bad weather, but ultimately he always believes he makes the right call by being cautious.

"I would rather disappoint you than hurt you," he said.

Moran, of Cortlandt, Ohio, has nearly 30 years of experience piloting hot air balloons. He got his license in 1989.

He was inspired to join the industry when he and his now ex-wife visited a hot air balloon event in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She also got her pilot's license and the couple bought two balloons.

Saturday night balloon glow

After the divorce, Moran said, he got the oldest balloon but he has built up his collection since then. "Now I have four and she has none," he said.

Moran is authorized to sell balloons and also make repairs, which can be easier than most would think. Occasionally, fixing a hot air balloon requires nothing more than applying a patch, like a person would do to repair a Christmas yard inflatable.

Of course, even repaired balloons are safe and need to undergo regular inspections while pilots face biannual reviews.

When up in the air, riders are tracked by a "chase crew" who follow the balloon's movements with GPS technology, which is a far cry from early days of balloon flights when the pilot and ground crew would communicate with radios and the "chase crew" would have to visually follow the balloon while relying on maps.

"It's become the age of electronics also," Moran said.

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