PHOTO COURTESY OF TRACY SINES
It takes about 15 minutes to inflate a hot air balloon. After it is fully filled by an oversized fan, riders climb over the side of the basket and into a cozy cabin. The pilot blasts the propane-fueled burner to warm the air trapped above them, and the balloon slowly begins to rise into the sky.
Jan and Gary Sines, co-owners and pilots of commercial hot air balloon businessBalloonStormers, have been completing this routine and flying hot air balloons for more than 30 years. Jan says she never tires of the process.
“Flying is about the most peaceful thing in the world,” Jan says. “It’s kind of like you leave all your troubles on the ground. There’s nothing like it. There’s no motion because the basket is hanging from a balloon, and in a balloon, you’re part of the wind. You don’t even feel the wind because it doesn’t blow across you.”
The science of hot air ballooning is simple: hot air rises. A burner at the base of the balloon blows heat into the pocket, causing the balloon to expand and ascend. The pilot can make the vehicle rise and lower by providing more or less heat but has no control over the direction of the balloon’s flight. Balloons drift in the direction the wind blows, and pilots determine before takeoff the wind’s direction by releasing special helium balloons.
Where the wind blows determines the location Jan and Gary select for takeoff with their Columbia passengers. Since the wind is always changing, the pilots never know where they will take off until shortly before departure. Flights only depart at dawn and two hours before dusk, when the wind is calmest. But once the balloon is in the air, up to four passengers can enjoy the sights of Columbia at 1,500 feet above the ground for an hour-long flight.
“It’s really calm, peaceful and all those other wonderful things, but it’s really an adventure,” Jan says. “You don’t know where you’re going. You know you’re going to head downwind; you’re guaranteed that, but that’s about it.”
Some passengers can be uneasy when first stepping into the basket, but their fear is soon replaced with wonder and awe of their surroundings, Gary says. The pilot rarely encounters someone who is afraid after takeoff.
“It’s unusual for us to have someone who is afraid when we get up there, because it’s not as scary as they think it’s going to be,” Gary says. “Once in a while, we’ll get somebody who’s a little bit white-knuckled or their knees are shaking a little bit, but for the most part, people aren’t really too frightened after a couple of minutes.”
The Sineses have few requirements of their passengers before they climb aboard. Generally, pilots recommend that children younger than 7 not take flight. Riders must also meet a basic physical requirement: Passengers should be able to easily jump off of a chair, which features a similar physical impact to a hot air balloon landing. Gary also has some advice for ballooning apparel.
“You just want to dress as if you’re going on a picnic and keep in mind that you might end up in a pasture or tall grass,” Gary says. “You ought to wear some sensible shoes — real shoes instead of flip-flops or sandals.”
BalloonStormers is warming up for the ballooning season, which takes off in May and concludes in October. Mid-Missouri typically has the best weather for flying in June and July. Local summers usually feature plenty of clear days when riders can make a memory that will last a lifetime, Jan says.
“Flying in a hot balloon is a wonderful memory,” she says. “Most people only get to fly once in their lifetime, if at all. I’m just spoiled.”