History of Ballooning and How Hot Air Balloons Work » BALLOONS ABOVE THE VALLEY | Napa Hot Air Balloon

Napa Valley is famous for many things. The picturesque wineries, Michelin-starred restaurants, cultural and entertainment venues, and glorious hospitality attract thousands of visitors each year.

Another world-famous activity that draws crowds to the area is the iconic Napa hot air balloons floating majestically above the vineyards and towns that dot the beautiful landscape below.

If you have been to Napa Valley in the past, you have likely noticed several of the beautiful, slow-moving hot air balloons that drift silently above.

Throughout the year, visitors from everywhere choose to greet the day while floating gently above the landscape in a safe and memorable outing with the best balloon rides in Napa Valley.

Balloons Above the Valley, a premier Napa hot air balloon company, offers safe and enjoyable daily flights piloted by the most experienced professional pilots. Passengers relax and savor their birds-eye view of Napa Valley’s scenic landscape and the breathtaking vista of the mountainous backdrop and beyond.

As you plan your next trip to wonderful Napa Valley and make your reservations for one of the best balloon rides in Napa Valley, perhaps a little background about hot air balloons is warranted. How did they originate? And what science allows them to rise and float so majestically and then return to the ground so gently?

How Hot Air Ballooning Began

First Flights

As what may be considered the birth of aviation, the first human-crewed hot air balloon flights preceded the invention of the first airplane by more than a century.

The first untethered, human-bearing flight occurred on November 23, 1783. Constructed primarily from paper and silk, this historic hot air balloon supported a circular platform at its base to accommodate the two voyagers, Francois Pilatrê de Rozier and Francois Laurent.

Lifted by the warm air generated by a hand-fed, wood-burning fire within, the balloon flew five-and-one-half miles in about 25 minutes, reaching a maximum altitude of about 500 feet.

Only ten days later, on December 1, 1783, two other French balloonists, Jacques Charles and Nicholas Robert, “revolutionized” the art of ballooning by introducing hydrogen to the balloon to enhance the “lighter-than-air” quality of the balloon. This second landmark flight, also originating in Paris, flew for 2 ½ hours for a distance of 25 miles.

Early Gas vs. Hot Air Balloons

Gas balloons filled with hydrogen were considered more efficient in those early days since they did not require a continuous fire. Hydrogen, the lightest of all elements, could keep the balloons aloft longer, and the altitude was easily adjustable.

After those initial pioneering flights, this new breed of aviators began to tackle new challenges, hoping to set records. Following some tragic failures by some others, balloonists Jean Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries became the first gas balloonists to cross the English Channel, traveling west to east along with the prevailing winds.

The first documented human-crewed balloon flight launched in the United States occurred in Philadelphia in 1783 with George Washington in attendance. The craft landed in Gloucester County, New Jersey, after reaching an altitude of 5,800 feet.

Ballooning in the 1800s

Gas balloons became the primary mode of air travel during the 1800s, although the cost and time required to fill the balloons sufficiently were prohibitive for most people.

At the time, hot air-powered ballooning was still not practical since no safe and efficient controllable heat-producing device was available to manage the lift and altitude changes needed to take off and land at a designated location.

Airships of the 1900s

The first genuinely commercial, passenger-carrying hydrogen-filled airships appeared in the early 1900s. Known as dirigibles or blimps, these cigar-shaped balloons carried a passenger compartment known as a gondola and were used for commercial and military applications. Eventually, after the famous disaster of the Hindenburg in 1937 following a transatlantic passenger flight, the popularity of highly flammable hydrogen-filled balloons began to wane.

Safe and Dependable Hot Air Balloon Flights

While gas-filled balloons were disappearing, the advent of the modern hot air balloon controlled with propane gas burners blossomed.

In 1960, Paul E. Yost and his team from Raven Industries from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, engineered a balloon and burner combination that could keep the balloon aloft indefinitely and allowed the pilot to control altitude easily by heating and cooling the air within the balloon.

NASA has even created sophisticated versions that can reach altitudes sufficient to act as satellites to study elements of outer space and the Earth itself.

The technology and safety of hot air ballooning have progressed to the point where flights for recreation are commonplace worldwide.

How Does a Hot Air Balloon Work?

Principles of “Lighter than Air” or Buoyancy

The key to understanding how a hot air balloon works begins with the principle that warm air rises. Put another way, an object will rise when it becomes lighter than an equal volume of air. Similarly, an object stays afloat in water only if it is lighter than an equal volume of the same water.

When the air within a balloon warms up, the molecules, primarily consisting of nitrogen and oxygen, become less dense and lighter than the air surrounding it. As a result, a hot air balloon filled with, well, hot air will begin to rise.

When the air inside the balloon is allowed to cool, the balloon begins to descend slowly.

In the case of those earlier gas or hydrogen balloons, the material did not require heat to rise since it is already lighter-than-air and ascends automatically.

On the other hand, because it was engine-powered and equipped with wings with lift capability, the Wright Brothers’ first airplane could leave the ground even though it was clearly heavier than an equal volume of air. Without the wings, engine, and the fuel to propel it, that first airplane would never have risen from that pile of sand at Kittyhawk.

How Can the Hot Air Balloon Accommodate Passengers?

Any casual observer will notice that passenger-carrying hot air balloons are enormous. Why is this?

If you assume the collective weights of, say, five people, plus the balloon itself, basket, and the burner, the heated air inside the balloon or “envelope” must be capable of lifting several hundred pounds. Applying the physical law that the weight of an equal volume of air must be greater than the weight of the balloon and its contents to rise, it is necessary to heat a vast amount of air to get the weight off the ground.

As a result, hot air balloons must be very large to accommodate the weight of multiple passengers.

How Does the Pilot Operate a Hot Air Balloon?

Setting up the hot air balloon for flight begins by unwrapping or unfolding the envelope or principal section of the balloon. This part is attached to the burners and the basket, and a fan or two is then set up to start blowing air into the balloon to inflate it.

Once largely inflated, the pilot removes the fan and turns on the heater to warm the air within the balloon. Eventually, the atmosphere within the balloon is sufficiently warm to board, untether, ascend and begin the flight.

Once aloft, the pilot can always control the altitude. Increasing the heat from the burners causes the balloon to rise. Releasing hot air through a top element known as a parachute vent allows cool air to enter the envelope and cause the balloon to descend slowly.

Experienced hot air balloon pilots like professionals at Balloons Above the Valley in Napa Valley can also guide the aircraft directionally, a much more sophisticated process requiring a substantial understanding of prevailing air currents in the area. The pilot will raise or lower the balloon to take advantage of existing wind currents to adjust the course to the desired direction.

During a safe and enjoyable Balloons Above the Valley Napa hot air balloon ride above the picturesque landscape of Napa Valley, passengers can relax and enjoy the view safely as the licensed pilot first ascends and then gradually descends to land gently at the target destination.

Best Balloon Rides in Napa Valley

For a safe, exhilarating, and memorable way to greet any morning, Napa hot air balloon rides piloted by a Balloons Above the Valley professional are an ideal solution for your future visit.

Learn more by visiting the Balloons Above the Valley website, where you can learn about the experience and make reservations for a future flight.

You can also ask questions and make your reservations for a future Napa hot air balloon flight by phoning one of our Balloons Above the Valley reservationists at 1-800-464-6824.

You may also purchase Balloons Above the Valley Gift Certificates for any future flight, a perfect gift for any friends or loved ones who will be coming to Napa Valley.