Biggest US hot air balloon to fly 35,000 feet this month

Built to support the US veteran charity Special Operations Warrior Foundation, Cameron Balloons US' A-560 is the biggest hot air balloon yet seen in the states.
Christopher McFadden
The balloon and skydive are for a good cause.

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The most gigantic hot air balloon ever designed and built is set to soar to altitudes of 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) or more in support of the US veteran charity Special Operations Warrior Foundation. The balloon will carry seven people within its rattan basket before five plan to skydive out of it. The balloon, built by Cameron Balloons US, will attempt this potential world record-breaking event over New Mexico this month (September 2023).

Jumping for charity

The skydivers will attempt their jump at altitudes typically occupied by jet airliners but where, to date, manned hot air balloons rarely venture. “Balloons don’t normally fly above 18,000 feet,” explained Andrew Baird, the general manager of Cameron Balloons US. He also explained to Popular Science that such a jump would not be easy. “It’s hard on the body,” he says. “You have to approach the mission scientifically and with great caution," he added.

Getting to that height with that many people is already unusual for hot air balloons, but jumping out of the aircraft is very uncommon indeed. The jump is intended to break a world record and raise funds for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which supports wounded veterans and, in the case of being killed in action, their families for healthcare and education of children "cradle to career."

The A-560 balloon is named after its volume of 560,000 feet3 (15,857 m3). The main balloon structure is crafted from something called Hyperlast, a type of nylon coated with silicone on both sides. This coating prevents the material from being porous, explained Baird. “The purpose of a balloon fabric is to trap air—we want to trap all that hot air because that’s what generates the lift,” he says. “We want it to be lightweight and flexible, but we also need it to be rugged and slightly elastic," he added.

According to Baird, Cameron Balloons US has created its largest balloon, measuring approximately 113 feet (34 meters) when fully inflated. The fabric and associated equipment used in a hot air balloon can weigh over 1,000 pounds (454 kg), not including the basket and burners. The construction process involves meticulous engineering and assembly of many individual fabric segments, known as gores, which run vertically along the balloon.

“A gore is kind of like a segment of an orange—slightly bulbous, thin at the top, wider in the middle, and thin at the bottom again,” Baird explained. This balloon has 20 gores," and each one of those gores is made up of a number of panels that run horizontally." This particular balloon has four burners, two of which are industrial standard, and another two have been customized for high-altitude use.

World record attempt

As for the daring skydivers, "they will congregate on [a special on the rattan] platform; [where] they will link up, and they will all go out together,” he says. The upcoming flight, named "Alpha 5 Project," is currently penciled in within a window between September 15 and October 15 window, weather permitting. If you want to pledge your support for the charity and record-breaking attempt, you can head over to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation’s donation page.

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