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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedNot just hot air: homebuilt ballooning on the rise
EAA AirVenture Today

Photo by Randy Dufault
Jeff Wagoner (left) describes his homebuilt balloon to Kevin Clark.

August 2, 2009 - Oshkosh, Wisconsin  - Jeff Wagoner says he was not a balloon guy; at least, he says, he wasn’t yet. 

Other than one short ride in a tethered balloon, he had not had any involvement with lighter-than-air aviation. 

Now…well, you could say he’s something of an expert in building a relative rarity in light aviation—the ultralight-category balloon. 

A forum at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh last year—interestingly one he did not get a chance to attend—started him thinking that designing, building, and flying a hot-air balloon was a new and intriguing challenge. 

Wagoner was already something of an overall aviation nut—a pilot and an A&P mechanic. 

So he accepted the challenge and the result is his own homebuilt, ultralight-category hot-air balloon that Wagoner built with his father, Jim.

Wagoner, of Okeechobee, Florida, described his project at an EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2009 forum Friday afternoon. 

Balloons are allowed under Part 103 of the FARs (the ultralight regulations) as long as the craft carries only one person, is not used for commercial purposes, and has an empty weight of no more than 155 pounds. As it is with ultralight fixed-wing aircraft, no certificate is required either for the pilot or for the balloon. 

One thing Wagoner saw as missing when he launched into the project was a user-friendly means of calculating the parameters and designing the shape of the balloon envelope. 

“I fiddled for months with a spreadsheet trying to figure out what the envelope looked like,” Wagoner said to the forum audience. 

“In the end it’s just a sphere on top of a cone,” he added, “or, in my case, an ellipse of about 80%.” 

Wagoner used the ellipse instead of a sphere, as he preferred the look of balloon envelopes with a flatter top. 

His spreadsheet, which he is making available to the homebuilding community, calculates the necessary size of a balloon envelope and the amount of fabric required. It also creates patterns for the gores, the individual fabric components ultimately sewn together to create the envelope. 

Wagoner described rip stop nylon as being the most desirable fabric for a balloon. It is light and, at least in some of its forms, relatively air tight.

With some 700 square yards of fabric required though, keeping the cost of the project under control was going to be a challenge.

“We bought all the fabric off the dollar-a-yard remnant table at Wal-Mart,” Wagoner said of their cost control strategy. “The first time we went and looked there was a bolt of bright orange and I thought: this is going to be easy!

“But that was the last of the bright orange we ever saw.”

Collecting the necessary fabric turned out to be a months-long affair, with visits to many different stores.

Wagoner advised using a good industrial sewing machine to assemble the gores.

“It’s not that a home machine can’t do the job,” he said. “There are miles of sewing in a project like this and a home machine should be able to do it, though you likely are going to shorten its life.”

He did note that a few of the sewing tasks, particularly with the nylon load tapes that encircle the envelope, require stitching through several layers of thick material and a home machine may not be up to the task.

Wagoner calculates that his build time for the balloon was only 80 to 100 hours.

According to Curtis Pack of Leon, West Virginia, another ultralight balloon builder in attendance at the forum, there are likely more than 20 ultralight balloons flying in the United States right now. In addition to the ultralights, a number of experimental amateur-built balloons and airships are also on the FAA registry.

Wagoner finished the forum with photos and a description of the craft’s first flight.

“We had done it! We had made our own hot air balloon,” he reminisced. “Even now when I look back on these pictures I can remember vividly how exciting it was to see something so big and so graceful that we had built with our own hands.

“Go build a balloon!”

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