FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions
Ask Captain Dave
I’ve had my commercial pilot’s license (for balloons only, though still issued by the F.A.A) since 1982, after being a student pilot in 1981. I got my first balloon in March of 1982 and have been flying ever since.
I’ve also taught 5 other pilots to fly. They each took their first passenger ride with me.
Balloons only fly within about 2 hours of sunrise or sunset (in daylight hours). These are the times when the air can be stable enough (free of thermal activity). In the summer, sunset can be more than 4 hours later than in the winter, and throughout the year sunset times are constantly changing from day to day. So, flight times vary.
Good FAQ. Each has advantages and disadvantages:
- It’s a quiet and pretty time of day.
- Sometimes (not always) the wind picks up during a morning flight and so the landing might be “more of an adventure” (involving a few bounces). That’s a plus for some
- After we land, you have a whole day ahead of you and you’re probably pretty cheery about it.
- We can have a mimosa (instead of champagne) after the flight.
- We need to be at the launch site very soon after sunrise (very early).
- Sometimes the wind picks up during a morning flight and so the landing might be “more of an adventure” (rougher).
- This is a REALLY BIG ONE: it’s hard (and usually impossible on weekdays) for me to get a chase crew for morning flights.
- Maybe you shouldn’t really drink a mimosa so early in the day.
- Sunset times (particularly in the summer) are more convenient than are sunrise times.
- Winds tend to die down during flight, so we can have softer landings.
- Few, unless you think (as my repeat passengers often do) a winder landing might be more fun. (This is not to imply that morning landings are always windier and evening ones are always calmer, though.)
This might be my favorite FAQ.
The summer is the most convenient, but each season has advantages and disadvantages:
- The cold is easier on the balloon in most ways. As long as I pre-heat the propane, it can stay up longer and carry more weight.
- Snow is soft to land on.
- No crops to damage, so more fields available to land in.
- Some days we’ll have air that’s clearer (of haze) than you’ll ever find in warmer months.
- Maybe we’ll have hot chocolate instead of champagne after the flight.
- Fewer days that are actually fly-able (it’s often too windy). Numerous cancellations can be frustrating.
- If we don’t land very close to a road it’ll be hard to retrieve the balloon.
- Cold (though you can dress for it, and there’s no wind-chill factor in a balloon as there would be on, say, a ski lift, because in a balloon we go with the wind)
- Less convenient – earlier sunset times, so earlier flight times, so it interferes with normal working hours. This also makes it harder for me to get a chase crew.
- Maybe we’ll have hot chocolate instead of champagne after the flight.
- A retired commercial artist (with a very talented, practiced and trained eye for color) showed me that the colors (mostly greens, but many different greens) can be richer than in the fall.
- On average, perhaps clearer (less hazy) air than in the summer. On a very clear day we can see Syracuse and Rochester at the same time.
- Put on a sweater and you might be more comfortable than in the summer. (It’s called a “hot air balloon” not because it needs hot air to fly in, but rather because we HEAT the air in the balloon to fly. Does that sound good for a 90-degree summer day?)
- Personally, all factors (for balloon and passengers) considered, and when properly dressed for it, I think 50 degrees is the ideal temperature for a flight.
- Mud. I don’t want to land my pretty balloon on it.
- More cancellations (too windy) than in the summer.
- Flight times are not as convenient as in the summer (because of earlier sunset times).
- This is when you probably think the weather is “best”, so you’ll actually schedule.
- Fewer cancellations. It’s fly-able on a higher percentage of days than in any other season.
- Later sunset times, so later flight times, so you can probably fly on weekdays, after work.
- “Clear” (of clouds) days are sometimes not “clear” (of haze) days. Sometimes in the summer we don’t see far.
- The hottest days can be a little uncomfortable for passengers.
- Mosquitos can sometimes be an issue (especially after a wet spring, though it’s usually not a big factor).
- You’ll like the colors.
- Otherwise, similar to springtime (see above).
- If you miss the small and hard to predict “window of opportunity” for “best” fall colors, then you might not want to schedule again for 6 months or more. See next:
- More cancellations (too windy) than in summer.
- Otherwise, similar to springtime (see above).
Absolutely. The more the merrier. We might have room for them in the chase van or else they can drive their own car.
I’ve flown people as old as 92 so far, without any problems.
On the other hand, I’ve found that kids under 5 are often afraid of the burner’s noise and sometimes kids 5-10 can be bored of standing still and watching things for an hour.
Balloons literally float in air. We move with whatever wind we’re in at the moment. So, you won’t feel any wind flow on your skin unless we’re going up or down, and we mostly fly level.
On average the ambient air gets about 3.6 degrees F colder per 1,000 feet of higher altitude … but there’s no wind-chill factor (see previous paragraph).
And we feel a little bit (though not much) of the burner’s heat.
So, personally, I don’t feel colder unless we go over 3,000 feet, and on many flights we don’t go that high (see “how high do you go?”).
Of course. Good FAQ : )
Before I fly, I get a pilot weather briefing. They tell me forecasted wind speed and direction at different altitudes for different times, forecasted surface winds for different times for bigger airports around me, actual reported surface winds for those same airports on the last hour.
Then I fill a 14-inch latex balloon with helium, let it go and see the real wind speed and wind directions at various altitudes in my immediate area at that moment – but I still don’t trust the wind will stay exactly just like that for my whole flight.
Then I do an extremely important thing: I chose which one of my many launch sites to use for the current flight. For a very simple example, if the wind is directly out of the north, then I don’t use my site ¼ mile north of the north end of Skaneateles Lake. Instead, I’d probably launch from the airport in Weedsport.
So, by now, if I’m lucky, I’ll know that I have different wind directions at different heights, and I’ll use that to steer, and that’s really great when it works. But, in the evenings in the area I fly in, there’s usually not much steering available.
So, I made sure that the launch site I chose will still offer me numerous landing possibilities even if my estimated wind direction turns out to be wrong by, say, 45 degrees of the compass to the right of the left, and if the estimated wind mph is wrong by 5 or more. And if I still start heading to where there won’t be landing sites ahead, I land before I get there (and refund some of the passengers’ money).
I also carry significantly more fuel that I think I’ll need in case I have a hard time finding a landing site.
Believe it or not, it works. I’ve been doing it since 1982 (and as a student pilot in 1981). Some landing spots are more convenient than others, but on average they get better all the time. The older I get, the more careful I get about these things. I’ve never had any passengers injured.
We have a chase crew that follows us as we fly and meets us where we land. Then we all pack up the balloon, load it onto the trailer and drive back. We have our champagne toast either at the landing site or back at the starting point.
99% of the time they love it, and I’ve literally had more complaints for NOT landing on someone’s property.
But in the rare case when they don’t like us being on their property I apologize, pack up quickly, and tell them I’ll avoid the site in the future. Those owners usually have cooled down to some degree or other by the time we leave. A few even turn around completely and end up sharing a champagne toast with us in the end. But still: apologize, leave quickly, avoid in the future.
Now a story of very happy (and helpful) landowners that I encountered on a very recent flight: My 3 passengers were all women (2 middle aged, none looked strong) and my chase crew was only 2 people (not the usual 3 or more). My wife was one of the crew, and while she’s been crewing since 1981, she’s not very strong either. So, I was worrying about a muscle-power shortage when packing up the balloon after we landed. (The basket is the heaviest thing to lift. In extreme cases – though I haven’t had to do this in many years – I can tank fuel tanks out first and carry them separately to lighten the load.)
I landed on a lawn at the one little 4-corners in a rural area. Four large men approached us. It was Sunday and they had been inside watching football on tv and drinking beer. They were very loud and rowdy.
But they were very happy to basically do all the packing up work for us! And they listened and followed my directions surprisingly well! Rarely does one see work done so quickly and cheerfully.
Next we all had a little champagne together and told stories.
As we were leaving, one of the men said, “This was the most commotion we’re had in our little neighborhood that didn’t involve the police in a long time!”
It depends. Sometimes (though rarely) I feel “forced” to go higher or lower for steering purposes (see “How do you steer?” above). But usually, after launch I take about 10 minutes to climb to 2,500 feet, ask the passengers which height they liked the best and usually I can accommodate their preferences. Some prefer lower heights; some ask to spend some time higher and some lower and some want to go higher than 2,500 feet.
I’m scared of heights too. I won’t go 10 feet up a ladder anymore. But I’ll fly in a jet or a balloon. There’s no “figuring it out” (logically). It LOOKS LIKE it’d be scary to me too, when I’m on the ground watching another balloon in flight. Go figure.
Many people are nervous for the first third of the flight, but pretty relaxed by the end of the flight.
Ask someone who you know who has flown. You’ll believe them more than me.
Consider this story: Tracey, who earned rides by crewing for me, gave one of her rides to her dad. He was so terrified before the flight that I had to pull over to the side of the road so he could get out to throw up on the drive to the launch site! But Tracey still convinced him to go. And when we were 20 feet off the ground, I could literally feel the tension leave his body!
Yes, unless you don’t want it (and there’s juice and water in the cooler too).
Having champagne is a tradition that goes back to beginning of ballooning, in France in the 1780s. The champagne started out as a thank you gift for the landowners at the landing site.
I bring 2 bottles (in the cooler in the trailer) for each flight – one for the landowner and one for us. If the landowner is there at the landing, we often end up having a toast with them, and swapping stories.
This is the traditional balloonist’s toast:
Yes, but please tell me beforehand, and don’t do it when I’m trying to get you to listen to landing instructions. So, do it early in the flight, don’t drop the ring and we’ll still wait until after we land before we have champagne.
We can’t steer very well (see “how do you steer?”), but I can control our height far more than you believe before you fly and see it yourself. So, basically, I wait until we’re over a good landing site and then bring it down.
My favorite spots are lawns, driveways and roads that don’t have powerlines. Next best is a farmer’s field where I wouldn’t be damaging a crop and I’d have access into the field with my chase van … and near the bottom of the list of preferred sites is a scrub field with tall weeds (so don’t wear sandals or skirts or dresses).
Again, it works better than you might believe. I carry significantly more fuel than I expect to burn, so I can stay up longer than planned if it’s hard to find a site. And my new (in 2020) balloon will stay up longer than any I’ve been flying in the last 15 years.
This adage has probably been around since the days of the Wright brothers: “It’s better to be down here wishing you were up there than to be up there wishing you were down here.”
Yes, we have to cancel flights because of weather (but not just because there are a few clouds in the sky), and it can be frustrating.
And unfortunately, we can’t know very far in advance.
I get a weather briefing as close as possible to the launch time. Then I call you (at a previously agreed upon time that gives you time to comfortably drive to the launch site) and say either “The weather’s good, here’s where to meet me (launch location) at the time we previously talked about” or “Sorry, not today. Would you like to reschedule?”
And, even if we get all the way to the launch site and then it doesn’t look good enough, I’ll cancel at the last minute, and say, “It’s better to be down here …” and you’ll probably understand.
I’ve been doing this since 1982 and never had any passengers injured. And I’m getting older, wiser and more conservative about fly/no-fly decisions all the time.
It depends how lucky you are.
Sometimes (usually for birthdays, family reunions or anniversaries) someone else has already booked a day 3 months in advance. And some days you pick a day when I’ll be out of town at a balloon festival.
But sometimes you can call me at noon and the “all the stars align” perfectly and you end up flying that same evening.
So, call me and find out.
Maybe, but you need to ask me before the day of the flight, so I have time to scout it out beforehand. We need a bigger area that you probably realize to launch. And by the way, the top of a windy hill is not a good launch site. I need to be able to drive my chase van and trailer onto the launch field.
It also has to be in a good geographical location – that has many possible landing fields downwind in the direction of flight (the direction of the wind) on the day of the flight – and we won’t know the direction of the wind until the day of the flight.
2 or 3 (not counting me – I’m the pilot), though many pilots with the same sized balloon and basket regularly carry 4.
Gas balloons have sandbags. Hot air balloons don’t. That’s a FAQ!
Gas balloons have no way of adding any lifting force during flight, so they take off with “extra” lifting force (a higher volume of helium or hydrogen gas) along with extra weight in the form of sandbags. Then when they want to go higher in flight, they can dump some sand.
Hot air balloons can add lift during the flight by burning propane in the burner above our heads in the basket to heat the air inside the balloon. Captain Dave flies hot air.
Come along to watch and follow a flight with the chase crew. Check out the Contact Us page to arrange this, or to just ask more questions. Or talk to someone you know who has flown.