How To Steer A Hot Air Balloon

In Articles, Articles: Kansas City Office, Articles: Salt Lake City Office by Scott Dougan

How does a balloon rise? Hot air. How does a balloon fall? Cooler air. But how does one steer a hot air balloon? The short answer is wind, but like most things, it’s not as simple as that. After all, wind will certainly cause a balloon to move but does the pilot have any control over where the balloon ends up? Is it as simple as landing wherever the wind took her?

Like just about everything, I searched for a metaphor in the discussion of hot air balloons. The idea that a hot air balloon adventure is a lot like life itself doesn’t take a genius to figure out. There’s a way to live life that requires little steering at all; just wait for things to happen and respond. Wherever the wind blows you, that’s where you end up, more or less anyway. It’s the person who has a very specific goal in mind that’d better learn to steer through life or end up dramatically off course. 

The hot air balloon can be ‘steered’ by an experienced pilot who knows a bit of science. Different altitudes have slightly different wind directions and speeds. By applying more or less propane to heat the air in the balloon’s envelope (the big balloon part), the balloon can be raised or lowered to direct it into the desired band of wind. When done skillfully, a balloon pilot can use this vertical technique to create horizontal or directional steering. Isn’t that cool?

As I asked more questions about balloon dynamics, I found one balloon detail a little troubling. The hot air balloon’s basket is made of wicker. Do you know why? Because landing a balloon can be impactful so the flexibility of the wicker allows it to serve as its own shock absorber upon landing. In other words, that enormous balloon hovering in the sky requires the part that holds the people to be designed to withstand impact with the ground when it lands. No thanks. 

I’m sure you know people who appear to have designed their life in such a way that they know exactly where they’re headed. They strive, move, plan, redirect, and achieve their way to the exact destination they’ve chosen. By contrast, you also know people who seem to float along in the wind, not at all concerned about tomorrow or the end game. They just seem to…exist. Where they land is where they land. And while I don’t think any of us can decide what’s right for another person’s life, it seems to me that a life lived somewhere in between these extremes is a life well-lived. 

Set the direction and do your best to arrive there, but when the wind shifts, be prepared to adjust to it. A little more gas or a little less, an adjustment here and another there, and we’ll get to a place that looks pretty darn good. And even if that doesn’t all go exactly to plan, do your best to enjoy the view because the ride doesn’t last forever.

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