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Hot Air Balloon Pilot

When Mark Gindlesparger spits from 2,000 feet above ground, he hopes he doesn’t offend anyone. It is a simple tool he uses when piloting a hot air balloon.

Gindlesparger said he and his wife Sue gained a true appreciation for hot air ballooning in 1995 after volunteering at Cascades of Colors, a balloon festival in Carbondale, with their children Emily and Matt. “We crewed for the festival, pretty well got involved,” he said.

Their first step to flying their own balloon was to become a pilot. The requirements to obtain a pilot’s license includes at least 10 hours of flying with an instructor, 10 hours of classroom work and a written exam.
“Then you qualify for an exam with the FAA, which is a written exam, an oral exam and then a flying exam,” he said. “By late August or so (in 1996), I had my full license.”

The Gindlespargers said they traveled to Statesville, N.C. for their custom balloon. “We got to design the balloon; they sent us fabric swatches and coloring sheets,” his wife said. Gindlesparger said the estimated cost for all of the necessary equipment is around $23,000: $21,000 for the balloon, fuel tanks and handmade basket; $1,000 for two aircraft radios; $1,000 for an inflation fan.

The typical process for getting up in the air consists of luck, preparation and a lot of manual labor, Gindlesparger said. “You need to check the weather thoroughly before sunrise … then you call the flight service, tell them where you’re flying. After you have determined whether you can fly, it’s just a matter of packing up the balloon into the truck and going to your launch site,” he said. “You also send up a helium pibal (pilot balloon) to calculate wind direction and speed.”

To have a successful launch, the ideal site should consist of flat land, short grass and a tree line that can break the wind, Gindlesparger said. Once the location is determined, the task of unfolding and filling up the balloon requires the meticulous attention of everyone helping. Gindlesparger said having a pilot and a three-man crew is the bare minimum, but acquiring a five-man crew is even better. Having a chaser — a person who drives in a car behind the balloon and is at the landing site — the passenger and any extra help makes the process go smoother. “Once you’re in the air, you’re organizing your thoughts on what direction your going, what’s the wind doing and checking if your passengers are freaking out,” he said.

The series of ropes and cords found inside are used to open and close vents, allowing a certain amount of air into the balloon to cool it down, while the burner provides lift by heating it up. Pilots use the cooling down and heating up techniques to regulate the altitude during the flight and speed of descent upon landing.
When up in the air, luck becomes a big factor on which direction the wind takes the balloon because there is no steering involved. Picking a landing spot is something that happens near the end of the flight, and the spot is almost never the same. This is when Gindlesparger spits over the side. It helps him calculate the direction of the wind below and how fast it’s moving.

In the end, the one thing that keeps Mark and Sue flying is the peace and quiet nature offers 2,000 feet above ground.

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