The propane burner roars for several seconds, the balloon slowly rises to tree-top level and the colorful palette of fall spreads out. The rising sun makes the surface of Lake Norman sparkle like acres of diamonds.
Fall is definitely the best time to take a trip in a hot-air balloon. When we catch our breath, the cameras start clicking and our fingers start pointing.
On the eve of the 2010 Carolina BalloonFest, here's a look behind the scenes at how flights work and how one nearby company, Balloon Works of Statesville, is a leader in the industry.
Before and after the ride
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Taking a ride in a hot-air balloon is an unforgettable adventure. The pilot will let you experience the whole process as the balloon is dumped from a bag and spread across the field. The basket is pulled from the truck, uprights attached, burner to heat the air is put in place, the basket is lowered to its side and the lines attached.
Passengers and crew hold the mouth of the envelope open as a big fan is positioned and roars to life. The balloon fills with cold air and it slowly starts to rise from the field. The crew attaches the parachute valve on Velcro tabs and adjusts the lines. As the balloon tries to stand up, the pilot fires the burner. The air heats up and the balloon slowly stands up over the basket.
After a final safety check, the passengers climb in and off they go! The pilot controls the altitude with the burner.
Landing is another story. Only the wind steers the balloon, and the pilot tries to anticipate the direction and the landing zone. School yards, parking lots and farm fields are targets. A chase crew tries to arrive in time to help with the landing and provide a ride back to the starting point.
How balloons are built
But hot-air balloons are manufactured in just a few places in the world, and the Lake Norman has a hot-air balloon factories in our own back yard.
Since 1974, Balloon Works has been building FireFly hot air balloons in Statesville. Their signature trademark is a handmade triangle wicker basket and spiral envelope design.
There are three major parts to a hot air balloon: the balloon, also called the envelope, the burner, and the basket or carriage.
The envelope can be as small as 56,000 cubic feet to a huge 280,000 cubic feet, big enough to cover an entire Lake Norman mansion or more. FireFly offers six patterns, custom patterns and then the custom shape balloons. The balloons are built to lift 1,200 to 4,000 pounds.
There is a parachute valve at the top of the envelope, developed by FireFly and now used all over the world. The valve is one of the most important components of the envelope, giving pilots more control of altitude by allowing the valve to be opened and closed to let out air.
The baskets are made from real wicker, hand woven with a custom color design. The strips are custom dyed to create the desired effect.
Balloon Works' Mirage Burner is a technological marvel. The burner puts out 20,000,000 to 40,000,000 BTUs depending on the size. The average home furnace is up to about 100,000 BTUs.
A hot-air balloon is a true aircraft; the pilot has to be licensed, and the equipment is inspected and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Many hot air balloons are built to be flying billboards complete with corporate artwork, special shapes and interchangeable advertising banners that can be attached to the envelopes with Velcro.