Posted June 16, 2017
The basket slowly rises, and you flash back to that runaway balloon that nearly spoiled your fifth birthday – except that the balloon above your head right now is about seven stories high, a big bag of hot air bringing flight to the wicker-basket gondola that’s your vehicle to a world between heaven and earth.
The balloon floats higher and higher over New Mexico’s Moreno Valley, about a hundred miles northeast of Santa Fe. Wheeler Peak, at more than 13,000 feet the highest natural point in the state, towers to the north. High-mountain meadows and rolling prairies fan out to the east.
New Mexico’s Balloons Over Angel Fire event makes for a perfect Father’s Day weekend. Pilots travel from across the state and from as far away as Colorado and Oklahoma to the village of Angel Fire for the 5,000-person, three-day event. Filling the sky with 40 colorful balloons takes a lot of energy – from the fabrics used in their construction to the fuel that heats the air. The result is one of the country’s most spectacular outdoor events, brought by natural gas and oil.
Each morning during the event the balloons sail through the sky, while at night they light up like giant bulbs for an unforgettable balloon glow. The balloons require a massive amount of material to hold all that hot air, about 1,100 square yards for the bag or envelope as it’s called, made using products manufactured from petroleum:
- Hot air balloons are comprised of four key parts and nylon, a polyamide made from petroleum, is ideal for multiple sections of a hot air balloon because it is lightweight and has a high melting temperature.
- At the top of the balloon is a section called the hyperlast, which is made of a nylon fabric woven from a heavier yarn to increase strength. The bottom two-thirds of the balloon is made of nylon and polyester, a synthetic polymer derived from petroleum.
- The skirt, the section of the balloon closest to the burner, is made of Nomex, a flame-resistant petroleum-based material.
- Finally, the gores, long straps that extend from the base of the balloon up to the hyperlast, are made of long nylon sections.
High in the Sky
Hot air ballooning dates to 1783, when a sheep, a duck and a rooster took the first 8-minute hot air balloon ride. Today, you can far outdo the trip taken by those barnyard denizens, riding above the clouds for hours at a time. In 2005, Vijaypat Singhania set the record for the highest flight by a hot air balloon at 69,850 feet, or 13 miles, above the surface of the earth, or about twice as high as commercial airliners fly.
Natural gas and oil aren't used just to make the components of hot air balloons; they're also used to power them. Hot air balloons aren't like gas balloons, such as the Goodyear blimp. Gas balloons fly due to a lifting gas, normally helium or hydrogen, in the envelope. Helium is extracted from natural gas and 95 percent of the hydrogen produced in the U.S. is made by natural gas reforming. Hot air balloons, on the other hand, use heat, not a lifting gas, to gain altitude.
To heat the air in the envelope for a hot air balloon ride, pilots use propane to make the air temperature hotter than the outside temperature. Propane is one of the finished products of modern crude oil refining and natural gas processing that transforms crude oil and natural gas into a number of feedstocks and fuels that are used across lots of different economic sectors. Most balloons seen flying in festivals are these types of hot air balloons. The propane used to heat the air – or power them – normally lasts for a two-hour flight.
If you miss the Balloons Over Angel Fire event in June, you can come back to New Mexico in the fall to the ballooning capital of the world, Albuquerque, for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. This is the world’s largest hot air balloon festival with nearly a million visitors annually. The sky is filled with hundreds of brightly colored orbs each day, and the festival is considered one of the most photographed events in the world.
It takes more than a pilot catching the wind currents to fly a hot air balloon. It takes energy at every step of the way from manufacturing to inflation to lift off.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.