Introduction to Ultralight Airplanes

Cloudhoppers: Hot Air Ballooning For The Rest Of Us

The regulations, license fees, hangaring and so on sometimes just come too much for the aviation enthusiast. Owning an ultralight airctaft or an experimental homebuilt is affordable compared to the middle class light sport airplanes but there are still a lot of hurdles to go through.

Some people just want to fly, no matter how. They need the most affordable solution possible. Some of them are happy with paragliding, others are looking for alternatives. One of the alternatives to owning an ultralight aircraft and paragliding is to buy or build a cloudhopper and start hot air ballooning.

Cloudhopper Hopper Balloon
Photo by pilothotair

What Are Cloudhoppers (Hopper Balloons)

Hot air balloons has been one of the oldest aircraft - the first of them has been raised in 1783. Cloudhoppers are hot air balloons that have no basket but just an aircrair. This is a method to reduce the price and weight which slightly reduces the fuel consumption of the balloon as well.

Hopper balloons are created to be used by a single pilot, but there are also some duo airchairs for a couple of people.

Other than this, the cloudhoppers are constructed just like the other hot air balloons and function the same way. The burner heats the air in the balloon which makes it lighter and thus ascents it along with the passengers. Once the air cools the balloon starts to slowly descent. It's really simple mechanics and is explained in great detail in this book (PDF link).

How You Can Own And Fly a Cloudhopper?

Here is the big difference (in USA) between most cloudhoppers and the regular hot air balloons: as most hoppers weight less than 155 pounds, they are considered ultralights and are regulated under Part 103 - which means you shouldn't be required to hold a pilot's license. (Note that in UK and many other countries this is not the case - so do check your local state regulations!). If your cloudhopper is heavier than 155 pounds you will need to register it as experimental aircraft and will need pilot's license.

In any case before flying a hopper balloon you need to get some training. Depending on the regulations and the flying schools this would mean around 20 flying hours and a couple of months to complete. Hot air balloons are not hard to control but training is still absolutely necessary.

After being trained things become easy:

  • Cloudhoppers are easy to land in small areas - something that you can't do with an ultralight airplane and is hard to do with a regular hot air balloon

  • No need to pay airport and hangar fees - you can store you balloon at home or garage and transport it with a truck or even a car.

  • Unlike the regular hot air balloons, cloudhoppers can be inflated and deflated by a single person.

  • Because they are very simple vehicles, hopper balloons need very little maintenance.

But before you can fly, even after training you need to obtain your hopper balloon.

How To Obtain a Cloudhopper and How Much Does It Cost

The most straightforward way of course is to buy one. Unfortunately these vehicles are quite expensive when bought new - average prices are around $15,000 and can exceed even $30,000. Often you can buy an ultralight airplane for the same money. The cost-wise advantage of buying a hopper is in the lower ongoing fees because you need no hangar and won't have to pay airport taxes.

Sometimes you can find used hopper balloons at Ebay, Craiglist or the aviation classifieds sites, but it's more an exception rather than a rule. Such balloons would be significantly cheaper however you should be experienced in examining their quality or take someone who is with you.

A lot more realistic option to save money is to join a cloudhopping club or just form a group of 5 - 10 hobbyists to own a hopper balloon together. Similar to the way ultralight airplanes are co-owned this can help you save tremendously. Nowadays it's easy to find people in your area through networks like Facebook especially if you live in a country with traditions in this kind of aviation like USA or UK.

The last and adventurous option is of course to build a hopper balloon yourself - more about this at the end of the article.

The costs of owning a cloudhopper are reasonably low except of course the fuel consumption (which is high for almost all aircraft). Usually one of these can fly around an hour with 40 l/10 gallons of gas fuel which is about $15 in the USA and €20 or so in Europe.

Safety of Hopper Balloons

As the book linked earlier in this article is saying, hopper balloons are statistically as safe as flying with a commercial airline. This certainly means they are safer than flying an ultralight airplane or helicopter. The reason is that the systems of the cloudhoppers are very simple - you have the envelope, a harness, an aircrair, a burner and a fuel tank.

When the air cools, the balloons lose altitude slowly so the risk of falling on the ground is low. Some unpleasant and risky situations may arise if thermal conditions raise you very high (thousands feet). Strong wind and storms are also potential dangers so it's advised to follow closely the weather forecasts before flying.

Some small injures are not so-rare when landing a hopper because the body of the pilots is unprotected.

Building a Hot Air Balloon Yourself

One of the most efficient ways to save money is to build your hopper balloon yourself. People build ultralight airplanes in their garages, so there is no reason why you wouldn't be able to build such a simple thing as a balloon. If you buy a burner, fabric, tapes, thread, and cables and build the entire vehicle yourself you can save at least 50% of the cost.

The building process starts with choosing the shape of the cloudhopper, calculating the needed materials (especially the fabric), cutting and sewing the envelope, building or buying a burner and airchair and assembling everything. Here is a really great guide on the topic containing most of the details you need to know. Most of the free guides available online are for building a paper toy hot air balloon, but this one is about building a real aircraft, so it's a jewel.

As with building ultralight airplanes, don't try to do this if you don't have skillful hands, time, and dedication. If you decide to go ahead, make sure to obtain some certificate of airworthiness at the end so you can have reliable confirmation that your balloon is safe.

Cost-wise paragliders and even powered paragliders seem to have advantages over hot air balloons. However balloons can take off from anywhere and many hobbyists claim the flight with them is a lot more pleasant. Maybe cloudhoppers offer a good option for flying, what do you think?

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User comments:

Candace at Mar, 10 '17 10:17
Its pretty awesome. I wish I had one of my own.
Reply to this comment

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