Skip to main content

Hot-Air Ballooning

Insider Info

A hot-air balloon is an aircraft. It's made of three main parts -- a basket, a burner and an envelope, or balloon. The burner heats up air inside the balloon, and physics takes care of the rest, propelling the whole contraption into the wild blue yonder.

While the scientific principle behind ballooning may be simple, getting a balloon in the air and piloting a balloon are not. A big part of this sport is the challenge of preparing the balloon for flight, which is why there's more to the sport than just catching a ride.

"For each balloon in the sky, it takes a dedicated ground crew of three or four people to make the flight a success," says Tom Hamilton.

Typically, it takes four people to inflate a hot-air balloon -- one person holding the crown line to the top of the envelope, two holding the mouth open, and the pilot.

The typical sport balloon can hold two or three passengers plus a pilot, but this doesn't usually mean the ground crew. They're needed on the ground to follow the balloon in a chase vehicle to help in recovery after the flight.

The Gatineau Hot-Air Balloon Festival is an annual gathering of hot-air balloon enthusiasts. It's the fifth-largest balloon gathering in the world.
Courtesy of: Gatineau Hot-Air Balloon Festival

One of the challenges of piloting a balloon is controlling the flight in strong winds. So, unless the pilot can find winds that will return him to his launch site, they will need a ground crew to pick up the balloon where it lands.

"Pilots make up a small percentage of all those involved in ballooning. Ballooning is really a group activity. Without the help of others, the pilot is not going to accomplish much. Besides, it's fun to share the experience of ballooning and flight with others," says Hamilton.

People who crew or fly balloons must be in good physical shape because lifting and moving the gear can be heavy work. The pilots must be attentive and adept at all ballooning techniques before they fly.

"Ballooning is done totally by feel. You have to plan in advance because the balloon doesn't respond quickly. You're using different winds to get where you want to go," says ballooning enthusiast Beth Wright Smith. "You have to be constantly on top of it to make sure that it's doing what it's supposed to be doing."

Balloonists usually prepare their flight in an open field and select their flying weather carefully. Flat regions and mild weather conditions are ideal, since mountainous ranges can be difficult to navigate.

Currently, there are over 5,000 active balloonists in the United States. This number includes only those people actively involved in crewing or piloting.

Hot-air balloons can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $10,000. A person wishing to get a pilot's license can spend up to $3,000 for training at a registered training school. Most people involved in ballooning, however, don't spend anywhere near this amount of money.

"A lot of people get hooked into ballooning in a more casual way. Crewing for someone is a real good way to get started because you see what it's all about without spending any money," says Smith.

People who crew balloons don't require any gear to take part in the sport. In fact, crew members can often get free pilot training from the experienced balloon pilot they crew for. A number of people who pilot balloons also "co-own" their balloon with one or two other people, which cuts down on the expense.

Many of the people who pilot balloons are also involved in other types of aviation. Piloting balloons for recreation and flying planes or helicopters for a living is good cross-training.

Other enthusiasts may find employment working for a ballooning school by teaching new pilots or working on the administrative side of things.

Getting Started

Thinking about taking up ballooning? Here are some suggestions to set you on your flight path. The best way to learn about ballooning is to find balloonists in your area and ask if you can crew for them.

"Pilots are always looking for people to help them and will often give a balloon ride for crewing a certain number of times," says Tom Hamilton.

Often, if a crew member does a good job and shows up regularly for flights, the pilot they crew for may give them some lessons.

"Being a good crew member means being at the flight location when you say you'll be there, working hard while you're there and having fun doing it," says ballooning enthusiast Chris Thomas.

To find out about crewing opportunities, look in the phone book under "balloons, manned." Or contact a ballooning organization.

The Balloon Federation of America recently created the Junior Balloonist program. It provides recognition and education for young people between the ages of seven and 17. It's designed for young people who crew for others.

There are a few formal ballooning schools in the U.S. which are geared to teaching a pilot to fly in a relatively short period of time.

"These classes can be expensive. But from what I understand, they're very intense and the people who learn to fly this way learn to fly well," says Thomas.


Balloon Federation of America
P.O. Box 400
Indianola , IA   50125

The Central Texas Ballooning Association
P.O. Box 2675
Austin , TX   78767-2675


Balloon Life Magazine

Flying in a Hot-Air Balloon,
by  Cheryl Walsh Bellville
Free Spirits in the Sky,
by  John Christopher Fine
Ballooning Handbook,
by  Don Cameron


Hot-Air Ballooning
Click on Pilots Corner to read this informative series

International Ballooning Commission
Updates on international ballooning news from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale

The History of Hot-Air Ballooning
A timeline of ballooning

Bart's Special Shape Collection
Would you believe there's a balloon that looks like a marching bagpiper?

The Balloon Zone
A nice, informative site

World Wide Web Balloon Pages
Links to a large chunk of the ballooning Net sites available

Ballooning Online
Ballooning jargon, global weather forecasts, catalogs and mailing lists

Gatineau Hot-Air Balloon Festival
Annual gathering of hot-air balloon and airship enthusiasts! Awesome photo gallery!

Back to Career Cluster


  • Email Support

  • 1-800-GO-TO-XAP (1-800-468-6927)
    From outside the U.S., please call +1 (424) 750-3900


Powered by XAP

OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.