By Tania Soussan
The differences between gas and hot-air balloons go much deeper than looks.
From the physics of getting up and down to the strategy of pulling off a good flight, gas balloons don’t operate in the same ways as the more common hot-air balloons.
“A major difference is hot-air balloons are very pretty, colorful balloons. They’re made of a lightweight nylon,” says pilot Barbara Fricke of Albuquerque. “Gas balloons are typically white.”
Gas balloons also are made from heavier fabric to keep the expensive helium or hydrogen gas from escaping and to repel the sun so that the gas doesn’t heat up and take the balloon higher than the pilots might want to go.
Fricke and her husband, pilot Peter Cuneo, last year traveled 1,430 miles in their balloon, Foxtrot Charlie, to win the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, which is a part of the Balloon Fiesta. The team that travels the longest distance wins.
This year, seven teams from the U.S., Germany, Poland and Spain will compete.
They are scheduled to launch at 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, if weather conditions allow.
Gas balloons have a long history in Albuquerque. They were the first types of balloon ascensions here with flights in the late 1800s and early 1900s and have been a part of the fiesta off and on since 1973.
The America’s Challenge was founded in 1995, according to the fiesta.
The race distance record of 1,998 miles took balloonists to the East Coast in 2000. The duration record – 70.51 hours – was set in 2011.
How they work
The mechanics of ascension are similar in hot-air and gas balloons. Hot-air balloons rise because the heated air inside the envelope is lighter than the cooler, surrounding air. Gas balloons go up because the helium or hydrogen they are filled with is lighter than air.
Gas provides more lift per cubic foot than hot air, so gas balloons typically are half to a third the size of a hot-air balloon or about 1,000 cubic meters.
“Because they’re more expensive to fill, you typically fly them for a longer time,” Cuneo says, adding that a gas flight averages about eight hours while a hot-air flight might be an hour long.
In the U.S., hydrogen costs about $2,000 for a single flight.
Race teams for the 2014 America’s Challenge, which is scheduled to launch at 6 p.m. Oct. 4.
Team 1: Peter Cuneo and Barbara Fricke, U.S.
Team 2: Phillip Bryant and Andy Cayton, U.S.
Team 3: Bert Padelt and Mike Emich, U.S.
Team 4: Anulfo Gonzalez and Angel Aguirre, Spain
Team 5: Mark Sullivan and Cheri White, U.S.
Team 6: Krzystof Zapart and Matiesz Rekas, Poland
Team 7: Heinz-Otto Lausch and Marion Lausch, Germany
Helium used to be more common, but a worldwide shortage has made it impossible for the fiesta to get helium for the America’s Challenge. Even if it were available, the cost could be $12,000 for a single flight, according to the fiesta.
The mechanics of going down are basically the same in either kind of balloon. The pilot can pull a rope to open either the parachute in the top of the hot-air balloon fabric or a metal valve in the top of the gas balloon to let out some hot air or gas.
It’s an easily reversible process for hot-air balloon pilots. With a burst of flame from their burners, those pilots can create more hot air and make the balloon rise again.
But once gas pilots release hydrogen from their balloons, they can’t get any more.
“You try not to do that unless you really want to come down,” Cuneo says, adding that the only way to go back up is to drop heavy sand bags to counter the effect of lost gas.
When Fricke and Cuneo are flying Foxtrot Charlie they take along 700 to 800 pounds of sand as ballast. And they use it sparingly because once it’s gone they have lost maneuverability and the flight is over.
Pilots must jettison about 50 pounds of sand to go up 1,000 feet. To get over the Sandia Mountains on the America’s Challenge requires about 350 pounds of sand.
The size of the basket is another difference between hot-air and gas balloons. Both use open, wicker baskets, but gas balloons require a larger basket – usually 5 feet by 4 feet rather than 4 feet by 3½ feet – to give the pilots a place to sleep during long flights and allow space for electronic equipment, food and extra clothing.
Cuneo and Fricke’s third first-place America’s Challenge flight last year lasted about 62 hours and included three nights and two days during which they crossed Lake Superior and landed in Ontario, Canada, having flown for 1,426 miles.
During long flights, they take turns sleeping two-hour shifts on a cot along one side of the basket where a small trap door opens to give them a little extra room.
“We usually hang our feet out, not our heads,” copilot Fricke jokes.
There are other differences between hot-air and gas balloons. Hot-air balloons typically stay within 500 to 2,000 feet of the ground.
Gas pilots are trying to get into the fastest air currents possible so they go as high as 18,000 feet.
“We probably fly the majority of our gas flights between 10,000 and 15,000 feet,” Fricke says. “We do carry oxygen because after 12,500 feet, according to FAA rules, you need oxygen.”
She and Cuneo have gone as high as 22,000 feet to cross the Swiss Alps.
Flying so high and for so long also requires some special equipment – such as a satellite phone and a transponder similar to what is found on airplanes – and technical support in the form of a meteorologist on the ground to predict winds, for example.
“You’re going for such a long period of time that you’re traversing weather patterns,” Cuneo says.
Those weather patterns are the key to choosing one of two strategies: stay low in the slower air current and use less ballast so you can stay afloat longer or use more ballast to go higher and fly faster for a shorter time.
“It’s sort of a turtle and a hare analogy,” Cuneo says. “Your strategy is continually evolving.”
Source: Albuquerque Journal – abqjournal.com