Hot Air Ballooning in Fiction!
Many writers of speculative fiction, while exploring their fantastical and scientific worlds, like to utilize different modes of transportation in their work. Yet even with magical worlds a few hard facts can bring the reader out of the story.
Meteorologist and hot air balloon pilot Don Day is here to talk about weather balloons, space jumps and hot air ballooning in fiction. Specifically, what writers, both realistic fiction and speculative, need to know.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Donald Day Jr. I am a private meteorologist.
What are your favorite books?
Harry Potter Series
Your favorite genre?
Non fiction, historical
As a meteorologist Don frequently uses weather balloons. While not utilized in fiction as much as hot air balloons, weather balloons offer a great way for scientific characters to gather information, especially in science fiction.
What fuel would get the balloon the highest?
Helium is the most common, hydrogen next, some have flown balloons using ammonia gas.
What material would the balloon need to be made out of?
Balloons that go very high using gas (not hot air) need to expand, either a latex and a very thin plastic film (called space film).
Would my character [in a story] be able to attach a camera that would work or would it be better/ more accurate to use wind speeds and temperature changes to determine aberrant changes?
Cameras are flown all the time on high altitude balloons. To track changes in temperature, wind etc., sensors would need to be attached to some type of radio transceiver. This is done with raspberry pi a lot and HAM radio signals and GPS that are received on the ground.
What kind of tracking and protection is done when the balloon comes down?
See above for tracking. Balloons come down either after they “pop” from expansion or remotely ripped (via radio from the ground). Most use a parachute for recovering the payload. The parachute is connected between the payload and the balloon so when the balloon pops, the parachute takes over.
For safety (aircraft) the balloon launches and predictions of where they will land have to be reported to the FAA, this is mostly true around the world. Check Youtube for high altitude balloons that have video of aircraft flying by.
For writers interested in utilizing near space jumps (kind of like that one scene in the 2009 Star Trek movie) Don has worked on many stratospheric space jumps, such as the 2012 Red Bull Stratos jump.
What kind of suits do the people doing the jumps wear?
For near space jumps, a pressurized spacesuit MUST be worn. (google the Armstrong line, the altitude at which you must have a pressurized suit). Anyone venturing into stratosphere or higher will die very quickly without one (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Piantanida).
What sort of physical training do the people putting themselves into this situation do to help prepare for the demands put on their bodies?
They must be in very good shape physically. A pre-breathing exercise must be done with oxygen or there is a high risk of the “bends,” much like scuba divers must do for deep dives. Also, a space jump diver must be on a strict diet…any gases in their stomach or intestines must be out of their system or it could be painful as gases expand in their body if there is any problem with pressurization (ie, no beans or Mexican food before a jump).
Your body needs to stay rigid and on a good angle when diving, and this takes strength and fortitude. Also, rapid spinning is a problem (see Red Bull Stratos and Joe Kittinger spins). Spinning too fast can cause blackouts and other problems.
Parachutes cannot be deployed until closer to the ground; the parachute will fail at the high speeds of descent until lower in the atmosphere. Felix Baumgartner traveled over 840 mph on his Red Bull jump.
Hot Air Balloons
We see hot air balloons being used in everything from cartoons, to movies and (of course) books as a mode of transportation. But like the horse accidentally being used like a motorcycle in fantasy fiction, so too can the hot air balloon be utilized incorrectly.
What is the difference between a blimp and a hot air balloon?
A blimp uses a gas for lifting (helium or hydrogen) and has propulsion (propellers). A hot air balloon uses hot air from a propane burner and steers by going to different altitudes to find different wind speeds and directions.
How does the weather affect a flight?
The weather is critical, especially wind. Blimps and balloons can be completely overcome by wind, blown off course, etc. Balloons/blimps are not supposed to fly in clouds, rain or snow, which will make the blimp/balloon heavier and may cause it to drop in altitude, same for ice. Flying in the dark is dangerous (objects, such as trees, power lines, etc.). Flying through a thunderstorm is a death sentence (90% of the time).
How can someone become a balloon pilot?
A balloon pilot either flying a hot air balloon or a gas balloon must have the same training and certifications as fixed winged or helicopter pilots. A certificate is issued only after training, a written test, and a flight test administered by the FAA.
What aspect do hot air balloons in fiction/movies get wrong all the time?
The burners have to be fired very frequently to keep the balloon hot. Many times I see hot balloons in fiction/movies where they never put (turn on the burners) heat into the balloon (I understand it would be too noisy for dialogue). Another one is that I have seen scenarios where they just fly to wherever they want to go….you really can’t steer a balloon to point A to point B without a lot of work and luck, as the wind decides where you ultimately go. I have also seen where people just jump out of a balloon (sky diver, etc.) and the balloon stays level–nope! With the loss of weight the balloon goes up like a rocket.
What are three main things writers should be aware of when writing about hot air balloons?
- The burners have to be used frequently (as mentioned)
- You can only fly as long as you have fuel (propane). 1 to 2 hours tops.
- You steer by changing altitudes (up and down). The wind reigns supreme–you can only do some much steering!
Wanting to combine his passion for radio and meteorology, president and meteorologist Don Day, Jr. started DayWeather, Inc., soon after graduation from the University of Wyoming in 1992. Don loves the challenge of forecasting weather in the Rocky Mountain West and High Plains. His experience as a hot air balloon pilot and the world of lighter than air aviation has led to his involvement in many stratospheric projects such as Red Bull Stratos and Stratex.