To start a descent from level flight, skip one burn, and then go back to the level-flight regimen to hold the descent at a constant rate.

To check winds below, look for the calm side of a pond, ripples on water, a flag, smoke, or movement of tall grass. You could also drop some tissue rolled into a small ball. The procedure for detecting wind speed and direction in a descent is similar to that of an ascent; a slow descent of 100 to 200 FPM allows you to make certain subtle changes.

A rapid descent in a balloon is a relative term, and is not defined. A 700 FPM descent started at 3,000 feet AGL is not necessarily rapid. A 700 FPM descent started at 300 feet AGL is rapid and may be critical. Rapid descents should be made with adequate ground clearance and distance from obstacles.

You can learn the classic balloon flare by matching the VSI to the altimeter, i.e., descend 500 FPM from 500 feet AGL, 400 FPM from 400 feet AGL, etc. Below 200 feet do not use instruments; look below for obstacles, especially powerlines.

Hot air balloons are equipped with a vent (which may be called maneuvering vent or valve). When opened, the vent releases hot air from the envelope and draws cooler air in at the mouth, thus reducing the overall temperature, allowing the balloon to descend.

Learn to calibrate the use of the vent, as well as the burners. Know how much air is being released so as to know what effect to expect. For predictability, time the vent openings, and open the vent precisely. Parachute vent balloons usually have a manufacturer's limitation on how long the vent may be open. Side vents may be used more liberally because the air being exhausted from the envelope is much cooler than air vented from a parachute top. A side vent opening of 5 seconds may be the equivalent of only 1 second of top vent. Use the vent sparingly; it should not be used instead of patience. Avoid using the vent to descend; use of the vent is wasteful and disruptive.

The only direct control of the balloon the pilot has is vertical motion. You can make the balloon go up by adding heat. You can make it come down by venting or not adding heat. For horizontal or lateral motion, you must rely on wind, which may or may not be going in the direction you wish to go. A good pilot learns to control vertical motion precisely and variably to provide maximum lateral choice.


The art of controlling the horizontal direction of a free balloon is the highest demonstration of ballooning skill. The balloon is officially a non-steerable aircraft. Despite the fact that balloons are non-dirigible, some pilots seem to be able to steer their balloons better than others.

There are broad physical laws that should be understood to help maneuver a balloon horizontally. For example, cold air flows downhill, hot air flows uphill, and in the Northern Hemisphere, as altitude is gained, wind is deflected to the right, or clockwise due to Coriolis force.

Being knowledgeable of the wind at various altitudes, both before launch and during flight, is the key factor for maneuvering. The following describes some ways you can determine wind conditions.


Pibal is short for pilot balloon. Many balloon pilots believe that pibals are a must for determining local wind conditions. To deploy your own pibals, all you need is a bottle of helium and a bag of toy balloons.

A 9-inch, dark-colored toy balloon filled with helium will climb at a faster rate than a normal balloon climbout and can be visible for over 1,000 feet AGL, even before official sunrise.

One method is to send up two or three pibals at 10 to 15 second intervals to fly at different altitudes. You can get them to climb at different rates and fly at different altitudes by diluting the helium with air. To do this, fill the balloon partially with helium and add some air by blowing with the mouth.

A 9-inch toy balloon filled to 7 inches with helium and topped off to 9 inches with a good puff of breath may show winds at different altitudes. The second balloon released will confirm the changes in direction made by the first balloon or show a completely different flightpath confirming variable or changing winds.

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