In Dawn McKenzie’s free time, she soars high above the ground in a hot air balloon, as she has since she got her FAA-issued ballooning license when she was 19.
Ted Gauthier, McKenzie’s dad, taught her how to fly. Gauthier and four of his five brothers took up ballooning decades ago, and he passed his skills to his daughter, the only woman in the family to pick it up. They flew together until he passed away in 2021, and McKenzie resumed flying Daydream, the 62,000 cubic foot balloon her father built.
This July, McKenzie competed in the 2023 US Women’s Hot Air Balloon National Championship with her uncle Marty (her dad’s brother) as her crew chief. Piloting one of these beautiful, colorful vessels takes extensive research before each flight—mainly on weather elements like wind, clouds, and precipitation—and a fair measure of courage, especially when in a basket all alone. McKenzie relishes the challenge.
This is how the flight process works.
Flying a balloon is serious business. It’s the oldest form of human-carrying flight, McKenzie says, and has an excellent safety record. The weather “pretty much has to be perfect” for a hot air balloon pilot to take to the skies. As they get ready to fly, hot air balloonists check the weather from every angle, carefully analyzing wind speeds on sites like RyanCarlton.com (run by a hot air balloon instructor of the same name) or Windy.com.
“That information also helps us determine where we might take off depending on where we’re trying to fly,” McKenzie says. “We have to make sure that there isn’t rain or storms in the forecast, and we need at least five miles of visibility. If the dew point is too close to the temperature, there is likely fog.” If there is fog, she can’t fly.
As an experienced pilot, McKenzie has a checklist of items before she takes to the air. Weather analysis, crew preparation and briefing, navigation planning, launch site selection, a pre-flight inspection, and more. (Her day job also involves transportation; she’s a communications manager for Ford, an expert on trucks like the Super Duty, F-150, F-150 Raptor, Ranger, and Maverick.)
Once she’s in the basket and off the ground, McKenzie continues to monitor the weather and wind closely, manages the fuel in her propane tanks, scans the area for obstacles, and engages in constant aeronautical decision-making, which is a systematic approach to the mental process used by pilots to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances.
“The most challenging thing is the uncertainty of the weather,” McKenzie says. “We’ll go out to the field and be ready to go but we’ll have to wait for it to calm down. You have to be really flexible and patient, which can be challenging.”
Getting ready to fly
To start, McKenzie picks her launch spot depending on which direction she wants to travel, based on the wind. Then, she and her crew assemble the burner components and connect it to the basket. They tip the basket on its side and spread out the balloon fabric (called the envelope), connecting the cables from the balloon envelope to the basket. Employing a powerful fan, the crew holds open the mouth of the balloon to inflate it with cool air. McKenzie turns on her propane tanks, ensures her crew is ready, and uses the burner to shoot a 15-foot-long, 5-foot-wide flame into the balloon, heating the air to stabilize it and make the balloon rise.
Once there’s enough heat inside the envelope (the fabric portion of the balloon system that holds the heated air mass), it becomes buoyant and floats up, trying to rise above the cooler surrounding air. It takes a lot of upward force (or buoyancy) to counteract gravity when you consider the mass of the basket and all its passengers, which is why hot air balloons are usually so massive. One of Dawn’s balloons is 90,000 cubic feet and about eight stories tall.
At the top of the balloon, a giant circular panel of material called a parachute top is used to vent heat or deflate the envelope. Held in place by Velcro tabs during inflation, the parachute top is connected to a long red line that pilots use to let hot air out of the balloon; it quickly seals back up. In that way, McKenzie controls her climb or descent.
Steering is dependent on the direction of the wind. As the balloon climbs higher, it’s getting wind from one direction or another, and knowing which way it’s coming from and at which altitude determines where the pilot should fly to get where they’re going.
“Sometimes, when you’re lower to the ground you’ll go left, and higher you’ll go right, for example,” McKenzie says. “The winds are constantly changing, so we’re looking at the reports ahead of the flight and after we set up and even once we’re in the air.”
McKenzie likes to fly during the few hours around sunrise and sunset, as do most pilots, because during the day, there is often thermal activity that isn’t safe for ballooning. Those thermal vertical currents make it more difficult to control the balloon, adding a serious element of danger to be avoided as much as possible.
“Heat off the pavement makes the unstable air rise up and forces warm air upward,” McKenzie says. “It pushes the balloon up with it, so you might start to climb or fall when you hadn’t planned to do that; it’s really unnerving.”
Wind between 10 to 12 knots (about 12 to 14 mph) is ideal, she says. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes a knot as one nautical mile per hour, used to measure speed; a nautical mile is slightly more than a standard mile on the ground.
“You don’t always know exactly where you’re going to land, but that’s exciting,” McKenzie says. “That makes it an adventure.”