Remember the Chinese Spy Balloon? It Inflated Concerns With Balloonists, but Boosted Business Too

Photo: Getty Images.

The incident inflated concerns among balloonists, but it may have boosted business for hot air balloon companies as well.

The Chinese spy balloon that was shot down over the Atlantic may have initially shocked entrepreneurs in the hot air balloon business. But those concerns quickly blew away.

A white reconnaissance balloon was first spotted in early February, later gaining notoriety as a Chinese spy balloon as it traversed the country from 60,000 feet. The U.S. Air Force downed the dirigible days later off the South Carolina coast. By mid-February, three more balloons were dispatched over North America, amid noisy political posturing.

The balloonery also brought an unintended twist: It was a boon, at least for some who own hot air balloon companies.

“I’ve actually seen an increase in customers contacting me about flights,” says Roger Clark, the founder and owner of Palmetto Sun Balloons in Greer, South Carolina. Interest has inflated about 25 to 30 percent since the news first broke, Clark adds. His business is about four hours west of where the spy balloon was shot down.

Not only is Clark a flight instructor, but he’s also an elite balloon instructor (the latter requires a nomination process), and says that he’s recently taught sessions and safety seminars in which he fielded questions, some of them humorous, from attendees related to the Chinese balloon.

What you need to understand, Clark points out, is that normal flight altitudes for hot air balloons are anywhere from 500 to 2,000 feet, far lower than that of your standard-issue spy balloon.

Hot air balloons–which are tear shaped and distinctively known for their bright colors–look strikingly different from an intelligence-gathering balloon with its white orb shape. About 200 large balloon tour operators work throughout the country, but there are even more smaller businesses working in the, um, space, according to the Balloon Federation of America. Hot air balloon ride prices vary depending on your region, but generally will run between $150 to $400 per person. Private charters are more.

Clark typically flies larger balloons, ones that are between seven to eight stories tall and 80 feet in diameter, and carry upwards of 1,800 pounds. Smaller balloons can carry about 600 pounds.

While hot air balloons are obviously large vessels, that size cowers to that of the spy balloon, which, in contrast, is about 200 feet tall. So it should be easy to distinguish between the two. But a greater problem, perhaps, emerges when gas balloons enter the discourse. While gas balloons are fairly similar to hot air balloons, the primary difference between the two is how they get lifted into the air. Gas balloons are powered by, well, gas (think helium or hydrogen), while hot air balloons draw off propane to take off into the sky.

Pat Cannon didn’t think all that much about the spy balloon until seeing close-up pictures of what the balloon actually looked like. “Most of us in ballooning looked at that and said, ‘Oh, my goodness, look at how similar that looks to a modern-day passenger carrier gas balloon,” says Cannon, who is the president of the Indianola, Iowa-based nonprofit Balloon Federation of America.

Most gas balloons are white and they’re also fairly round, so the casual observer could easily confuse it with what they saw on television. Cannon emphasizes that people shouldn’t take action on their own given that gas balloons are fueled by either helium or hydrogen, the latter of which can be highly explosive.

Patrick Grogan, who operates Tree Top Flyer Ballooning in Mooresville, North Carolina, echoed Cannon: “If I were doing gas balloons, then I’d be more concerned, because they get up to 10 to even 12,000-foot ranges, for multiple days at a time.”

Luckily, Grogan hasn’t seen any customer cancellations and says it’s pretty much business as usual.

He also works for FireFly Balloons, a North Carolina balloon manufacturer, which has at least three balloons in production at the moment. FireFly employs four people, including Grogan, and together the team works to build hot air balloons from scratch.

That process involves cutting individual rectangles from raw fabric and sewing them into panels, called gores, which are subsequently sewn together. The balloon is then outfitted with various pieces of hardware and is finished once it’s ready to be inflated with either hot or cold air.

The whole process takes the team between two to three months to construct one balloon, depending on size. “The business has not slowed down at all because of [the spy balloon],” Grogan says.

What might need to speed up, however, are education efforts around ballooning–especially ahead of this year’s upcoming Gordon Bennett race, an annual race among sport gas balloons to see who can fly the longest distance. The race takes place in Albuquerque in October.

The BFA, which focuses on promotional and educational efforts around hot air and gas balloons, fielded phone calls from some concerned constituents in the ballooning industry. Potential passengers have questioned whether they should move forward with their ballooning trips, out of fear of potentially being shot at.

Indeed, as the balloon floated across the U.S. many warnings were sent out about the dangers of trying to shoot down the balloon. Shooting at an aircraft is a federal offense, after all.

But the good news remains: For now, it seems like business hasn’t burned out after the spy balloon.

“I think there was some general concern from the public, but I think it’s too early for us to know if there’s any data to be derived from this that says that passengers shied away from ballooning,” the BFA’s Cannon says. “I think the local operator here is just as busy as he was before.”