DEXTER, Mich. (July 4, 2014) -- It's amazing to see the beautiful, colorful hot air balloons take to the sky each year in Battle Creek for the Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon Festival. Many folks probably don't realize the company that makes a majority of those balloons is located right here in Michigan. In fact, Cameron Balloons is one of only a handful of companies that make the balloons worldwide.
Cameron Balloons is located in Dexter, Mich., just outside of Ann Arbor. We thought it might make a great preview to the annual Battle Creek Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon Festival to showcase the maker. After all, they ship all over the world, compete all over the world, and make all the major components.
Cameron has been making balloons for years, and they generally sell about 40 to 50 per year. Anyone can purchase one, but you need to be a trained hot air balloon pilot to fly one. The industry is strictly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Balloons are built from the ground up beginning with the hand-weaved basket that carries the pilot and passengers. Baskets can be made to accommodate anywhere from one to 24 people, and the baskets take about two to three weeks to weave. They're made from something similar to bamboo, except it's solid and known as rattan.
As the basket is being weaved, the fabric and materials department goes to work on meticulously stitching and assembling the actual balloon. "Hot air balloons use a special rip stop nylon material, high tenacity nylon that has a coating on the outside to help repel moisture and a coating on the inside to help retain heat for thousands of hours," says Paul Petrehn from Cameron.
Petrehn himself has been a pilot and competitor in balloon competitions for decades, and he enjoys it immensely.
Cameron also does custom balloons for companies like Remax, Disney, and several insurance companies that have been known to use balloons as a way to advertise. A standard entry-level balloon for a pilot and two passengers costs about $40,000, but the bigger custom ones can be at least a few hundred thousand dollars.
Not only has the basket and material quality come a long way, so have the propane burners. The burners produce a whopping 18 to 20 million BTU's (British Thermal Units) of power and the fabrics can take the heat much longer and last for many years. Operating temperatures inside the balloon at the top typically reach about 250 degrees.
Make sure to click on the video attached to this story to see the whole process!
Weather plays an important role on whether balloons can even fly. You'll notice the primary time for balloon flights are typically in the early morning hours and in the evening before and after mid-day heating occurs. Why? Because pilots try to avoid thermals (bubbles of air that rise) and can make the flight more challenging and unpredictable. Wind is usually lighter at these times, too.