Up, up, and away

By Phil Plait | September 25, 2011 7:00 am

I was in my home office yesterday morning, sipping my coffee and trying to wake up while perusing the latest news from Twitter and Google+. It took a second, but the sound coming from outside worked its way into my head… a rushing, roaring sound. "GGGGggggggshhhhhh! GGGGggggggshhhhhh!"

I knew what it was right away: the flame from a hot air balloon, the pilot giving the bag some gas. We get a lot of balloons here in Boulder; the cool air in the summer mornings coupled with the spectacular view of the mountains makes them really popular. But this time was different; the sound was much louder than usual. Hmph, I thought, better grab the camera.

I ran outside, and yeah, it was close:

Wow! [Click to fifthdimensionate.]

It actually rose up from behind my house, so I ran down the street to get a good view. It flew past me (where I got this shot) then passed overhead where I got that shot.

How close was it? Close enough to wave at the passengers in the gondola, and have them wave back. That was cool.

It slipped out of sight, and landed in a field across from my neighborhood. I went back inside, but a few minutes later my wife called out, "We’ve got two more!" I went into my back yard, and one was landing in the field behind my house, too:

I have to say, this is a great way to wake up in the morning. It’s simply delightful. And I have a sneaky suspicion that sometime in the next year or so I’ll have to taker a ride like this myself with my family. I’d love to be able to take pictures like this from the other side.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (40)

  1. Erika

    I highly recommend it! Some of my favorite memories, and such amazing pictures.

  2. Rowan

    Hi Phill, the mobile site is still broken on iPhone. There is no content onthe second page of the site.

  3. Jim

    Where I live in northwest New Jersey we get hot air balloons all the time too. Like you, I’m always happy to see them come floating by. I’ve done two trips in them so far and can’t recommend it enough. It’s a treat you won’t soon forget.

  4. Peter B

    Canberra, where I live, is another popular hot-air ballooning city. There’s even a ballooning festival in March each year.

    I was surprised when a balloon afficianado explained in a talk that the balloons are inflated with cold air. Only once the balloon is fully inflated is the air heated.

  5. Jason P

    You really must go up—I can’t imagine you’re afraid of heights and that’s the only reason to not try it at least once. The views can be spectacular. Take a flight during a festival if you can and you’ll be able to take pictures of the other balloons from your own. If you have a smartphone, reception up there is *great* and you’ll be able to track your position pretty well, which comes in handy.

  6. @^ Peter B. : But .. but .. how does that work? 😮 (Puzzled.)

    That really surprises me too.


    Hmm … how about Montgolfierate, BA?

    (Click my name for Montgolfier brothers wikipage. Somewhat interesting co-incidence that sets of brothers gave us both balloons and aircaft .)

  7. On the cold air in the balloons: from what I’ve seen yes, they have to do this. The hot air from the fire goes straight up in the air, but a balloon that has no air in it lays flat on the ground. They hold it open and use a big fan to blow the air into it. Once it’s at least a little inflated, they can get the hot air in there, then it starts to lift up and it gets easier and easier to put hot air in.

    I agree, it’s a terrific and fun thing to do – very exciting and cool. And of course afterwards there is the obligatory champagne! Beautiful pictures.

  8. I have to say, that is so freaking cool you have hot air balloons floating by your house! Living in the DC area, it sounds very strange to me, because the most I usually see are helicopters and planes landing/taking off at Reagan National Airport. I am jealous!

    Here in the DC area, if a hot air balloon were to be floating by…

    …well, everyone in the country would know because it would be on CNN (with the headline “Possible terrorist balloon threat?”)!

  9. Tom

    The balloons in Colorado Springs were about the best thing about living there in the early 90’s. Did you call up to them as they floated by? :-)

  10. MarcusBailius

    Done it once, starting from north of Oxford and ending up somewhat to the south. A good way to spend a morning.

  11. SkyGazer

    You should defenitly get a ride!!
    It´s spectacular! The silence. No wind (you go at the same speed and direction).
    You´ll find out that you can hear people talk at 100 meters up!
    So GO!

  12. What a way to wake up to a morning indeed ! Now going on a ride in one of those would be really swell.

  13. Jorge Laris

    I’ve never seen one of those.

  14. Back in the mid to late 80’s (1986 or 1987 most likely), the family cat, Nyssa (yes from Dr. Who), was the first to spot a balloon in flight near our house. (Brookfield, WI) Her reaction to it was amazing, mostly consisting of growls and hisses, which is what attracted our attention to it.

  15. Thomas Siefert

    I don’t think you have caught on to what’s really going on here. Your house is now part of the “Boulder Baloon Celebrity Tour”.
    They advertise: “We fly so close that the celebrities sometimes come out to wave or shake their fist at us” and “See the celebrities in their natural environment, please do not feed them”.

  16. Alan Stern

    I saw the whole flotilla this a.m. from Chatauqua on a hike. I counted 8, including two that had just set down up north.

    Carole and I did our first one last summer, Boulder to Longmont– it was sublime– just bring a hat– those burners are HOT!

  17. WJM

    @14, the annual balloon festival here in Rand McNally, nine times out of ten, has the balloons flying right over my neighbourhood. (The ninth time, they veer a little east.)

    One of my kitties, the first year after moving into the Balloon Zone, was veritably *barking* at a low-flying orb.

  18. Mike H

    …and now that song will be stuck in my head the rest of the day.

  19. Sadly some residents of California don’t get to see this any more, since a somewhat freaky local compound owner managed to sue 13 balloon operators out of business for flying over their property:


  20. You appear to be pretty tall, so seconded from here on the hat advice.

    When the burners aren’t flaring, the silence as you slide across the landscape is dreamlike. Somehow it’s more than just silence… I think because not only are there no low-level background noises, but also it’s as if the void around you lacks the physical weight of nearby objects. I know that sounds unscientific, but I’m trying to describe the odd feeling.

    Whatever it is, it is delightful.

  21. Chris S

    I get woken up by those balloons most days this time of year, since they’re floating along just above my apartment, I’ve got the window open letting in the cool air, and those burners are surprisingly loud. I have to say, its not an unpleasant way to wake up. I live pretty darn close to where they launch them in Gunbarrel.

    Last year one of the balloons set down right in front of my place, in the middle of the street. That was kind of a neat photo opportunity.

  22. Infinite123Lifer

    No feeding the celebrities :) chuckle

  23. I’ve only flown in a balloon once; it was over the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya. That would be pretty spectacular at any time, but… it was during the annual migration of over a million wildebeeste! That’s quite a sight on the ground, but from the air, it was breathtaking.

  24. Amy

    I grew up in Napa and hot air balloons are a very popular tourist attraction there too. Since our house was on the edge of town, near the vineyards, we got a lot of fly-overs, and the sound is definitely a childhood-memory trigger for me – I would hear it daily as I was waking up during the spring and summer. The day one landed right out in front of our house was a HUGE thing for me as a kid. It was so cool, and I always wanted it to happen again.

  25. Randy Owens

    Does this mean we need to get on our special 5-D glasses to see the bigger picture?

    P.S. @JulieMTL: I was going to high school in Waukesha at that time. So, hi there!

  26. katwagner

    @19 syrtis: REALLY?! You’re kidding me. I read the writeup at your link and I can’t believe it. Don’t you all have a planning & zoning department that could step in and call out that jerk? And the bankrupt guy who said that would never happen to a restaurant, well, he’s right. Around here, some guy with a boatload of cash doesn’t get to tell the rest of us what to do. So the claimant gets to win cuz he’s rich?!

    Couldn’t you all just have laughed him out of the courthouse? I just can’t believe it…

  27. katwagner

    I’m still pissed. I mean, if Jupiter shines over his farking farm, why doesn’t he sue Jupiter, for crying out loud. And it’s been so pretty at night lately! I should chill…

  28. Chris

    For an incredible experience, check out the Red Rock Balloon Rally the first weekend of December in Gallup, NM. Hundreds of balloons taking off at once, surrounded by huge cliffs. The best thing – you can hike up the cliffs and stand above the balloons, and they even come up and temporarily land next to you on the cliff. One guy landed next to me, asked if I wanted a ride down, and I happily obliged. I’ve got to be one of the only people to never take a balloon up, but instead ride one down.

  29. Lynn Wilhelm

    Had a couple land in a field near our house when I was a kid. Like Amy @24, it was a huge thing for me. By the way, that was not far outside of DC, but back in the 70’s. I still get excited when I see a balloon. I’m scared of heights, but I think I could handle it these days. I think the lack of wind would make it feel OK, wind in high places is just the worst. It ilicits a feeling of being blown over the edge.

    @JulieMTL I had a cat named Nyssa too. And another named Tegan. Before them I named a parakeet The Doctor–that was a little wierd. (I also had a cat named Sagan and one called Azazel.)

  30. Ganzy

    Great pictures, and that first one is especially cool. You even managed to squeeze some science into it too! I like how you have the alignement of the Sun, balloon and lens flare. Emmision, Reflection and Refraction all in one picture.

    And the order of the spectral lines of the balloons, design matches up exactly with those of the lens flare.

    Did you do that on purpose Phil? 😉

  31. Ted Judah

    I would really like to bring some of those balsa-wood gliders up in a hot-air balloon. Wheee!

  32. Stan9fromouterspace

    Fifthdimensionate. I think that’s one of my favorites so far. Really rolls off of the tongue.

  33. Floyd

    Phil and the people in California deprived of balloons–Drive or fly to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta sometime. Worth the trip–600 balloons or more. A friend of mine has a balloon shaped like a giant zebra that will be out there.

  34. Topher Stone

    Wow that is awesome. Something very much like this happened to a friend of mine and myself while on a camping /astronomy/cycling trip in New Mexico. We were camped in between two large rocky cliffs and very early one morning while we were admiring the way the rising sun cast an un-Earthly red glow on one of the cliff faces (It reminded us of Ayres Rock) an odd shape slow rose from behind the cliff. It was of course a hot air balloon (I had never seen one in real life at that point). We too were able to wave and cheer the pilot and his company. It was a really thrilling experience for us.
    Love the Blog BTW, been a fan since I first read bad Astronomy back in the early 2000’s!

  35. DonnieM

    Those are great shots Phil. I have a feeling not only are those people in the balloons enjoying the cool morning air of Boulder, but perhaps they’re getting conditioned for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which will be starting this weekend (October 1st), and there should be at least 550 balloons launching each morning during the next couple of weekends. I’m sure THAT’LL be a sight as well!!

  36. Jim

    I can also heartily recommend balloon rides and hats :-)

    My last balloon ride was somewhat shorter than expected. My local village fete had a tethered balloon taking people up 30m or so for a look around. My wife and I were the last to ride in it on that morning, as the wind picked up. Floating along on a breeze is very serene, but being in a tethered balloon that gets a lot of its hot air squished out by a gust makes for an exciting landing!

    As far as little BAs go, the balloon operators on that day said that children have to be head and shoulders above the edge of the basket (around nine years old), for two reasons. First so that they can see out, and second so that they don’t get whacked in the face by gas cylinders if the landing is bumpy.

  37. Mike G

    A balloon like this is interesting, but having it so close to houses is setting off alarm bells. Remember, it’s a floating flamethrower.

    14 CFR 91.119 forbids operating aircraft (this includes balloons) at less than 1000 feet above “congested areas” (which the regs don’t define, but as the alternative is “remote areas,” people generally think it means cities). Outside congested areas, the aircraft must remain 500 feet from any person or structure on the ground. By the look of your photo, they violated the weaker standard. Even if he didn’t, the same reg prohibits operation that creates undue risk to people or structures on the ground.

    I’d suggest a phone call to the Denver FSDO (FAA). This clown could have burned your house down. If he *had* to land there for some reason, it’s legal to break any part of 14 CFR 91 in an emergency. But he should be asked about it.

    The public has been educated that all air travel is safe. This is true for 14 CFR 121 regulated commercial air travel. It is not true for other types. Having an aircraft “buzz” your house is a very dangerous situation. Performing such a stunt intentionally is gross recklessness (like driving up to the flatirons at 100 MPH), and should be treated as such.

  38. but also it’s as if the void around you lacks the physical weight of nearby objects. I know that sounds unscientific, but I’m trying to describe the odd feeling.

    Actually that makes perfect sense. There’s no echo. The space around the balloon would swallow up even small noises coming from the basket.

  39. icemith

    @4. Peter B …

    Hot Air! Canberra! Now who would have thought that that could be possible?

    Oh yeah, just remembered…. Canberra is a our Capital City, and the national seat of government.

    Hmmm, does that answer your question, Monsieur Messier Tidy Upper, (@6), (as if you didn’t know … (insert Smiley face here!)

    Yeah, and it is interesting re the two sets of brothers developing Balloons and Aircraft. I could also mention the Renault Brothers with Automobiles. Warner Brothers and their work with Cinema, not to forget the Coen Brothers in that area too, and many more you can find if you engage your favorite search engine with finding, “Inventive Brothers”.


  40. James

    The good news is that all lawsuits were dropped following a court order for inspection to determine what possible harm the balloonists could have caused


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