Did you know the title held by a hot-air balloon pilot is “aeronaut”? That’s an undeniably cool moniker with just the right amount of steampunk homage to match the retro-futuristic qualities of literally flying with nary a trace of modern technology. You know what else is undeniably cool? When scores of aeronauts flock to Park City each fall, as they’ll do once again for Autumn Aloft on Sept. 17 and 18.
During this year’s edition of the annual festival, attendees will witness an armada of colorful aerostats—that’s the undeniably cool name for lighter than air aircraft—take to the skies above the Wasatch back in a scene that’s surreal if you aren’t expecting it and still captivating even if you’re attuned to seeing the odd balloon or two floating in the placid morning air. Before turning your eyes to the sky this fall, it’s worth indulging in a bit of scientific inquiry into just how those aeronauts work those kaleidoscopic aerostats.
The basic principles behind hot air balloon flight aren’t too complicated. Aeronauts use a burner fueled with pressurized liquid propane to heat the air within the balloon. As the air heats up, the molecules in the air speed up and spread out, making the air within the balloon less dense than the air outside the balloon. Less dense things rise, hence with enough volume the balloon will float into the air. When it’s time to come down, the aeronaut opens the flap atop the balloon to lessen the volume of warm air, and thus the balloon will slowly descend.
But the trickiest part to contemplate occurs while in flight because hot air balloons have no propulsion and no mechanism for steering under their own power. The only way to navigate the proverbial x-axis is to change elevation using the method described earlier, and subsequently use the wind direction and speed at different elevations to, in essence, steer the balloon. In theory this sounds simple, but after some significant internet sleuthing it seems as though it’d be rather difficult to pull off without accidentally landing in the grocery store parking lot or some unhappy person’s backyard.
Anyway, now that you have an appreciation for how those aeronauts deftly navigate the skies using little more than what amounts to a gas grill between a wicker basket and a big piece of fabric, don’t miss them hovering over Park City. See the hot-air flotilla in action as they launch en masse on Saturday and Sunday morning from the North 40 Fields at 2350 Kearns Blvd. at approximately 8 a.m. when the weather tends to be nice and calm.
On Saturday evening starting at 8 p.m., attendees can get up close and personal with balloon equipment and see demonstrations from balloon pilots at the Candlestick on Main. There will be eight baskets to check out along with a visual display of balloon burners set to music from DJ Hitman, all on Historic Main Street.
Attendance to all events is free, and complete details are available on the Autumn Aloft website.