Everything must go perfectly for hot air balloons to safely ascend. Literally everything. If conditions aren’t pristine (pure sunshine—or at least high cloud ceilings, wind below seven miles per hour, and, ideally, no extreme temperatures), balloons are grounded. That’s why it’s a minor miracle that in 2020, a year when everything else went wrong, all the 30-plus balloons in Wisconsin’s Hudson Hot Air Affair flew as thousands of spectators watched from the ground.
“It’s not always as windy in the winter as it is in the summer, so sometimes your window of opportunity is a lot better,” explains the event’s president, Michelle Webb. “The other bonus is that you use less propane, because you’re filling the balloon with hot air so it will rise up. You need to get the balloon hotter than the outside temperature.”
If all goes well (again), the event will take place February 5–7—its 32nd annual run—minus the crowds, of course. Instead, groupings of four or five balloons will lift off throughout the morning from secret locations around Hudson, filling the sky for people all over the area (and a Facebook livestream) to see. To learn more—and keep up with ever-changing event restrictions—visit hudsonhtairaffair.com.
Higher and Higher
Balloons generally reach 1,000–3,000 feet in altitude for events and pleasure rides—but the world record is a dizzying 69,850 feet.
Gonna Fly Now?
To figure out if conditions are right for flying the morning of the event, the pilots get together and launch a small helium-filled balloon to see how fast it flies. “If it just goes flying right past them, they know they can’t fly,” event president Michelle Webb says. At the event, the first flight is scheduled before 8 am, when the wind is calmest.
“Our core group of fliers has been with us for 25, 30, or all 32 years,” Webb says. She says the group is always looking for newer pilots (like Brian Bennett, flying DejaVu, pictured here, who flew in the event for the first time in 2020), but it can be tough for younger people to pick up the expensive hobby.
What do pilots think about in the sky? “I forget about all my earthbound worries and just enjoy being one with the wind,” says 30-year pilot Ken Walter. On a more practical note, pilot Ed Chapman concentrates on finding the best landing spot.
The High Life
Ed Chapman, pilot of Fire and Frost, flew F-4s in the Marine Corps before another fighter pilot introduced him to balloons. “Yes, it gets colder as you go higher, and the wind usually gets stronger, but since you’re drifting with the wind you don’t notice it so much,” he says.