You’ll never forget the first time you saw a hot air balloon, and for many people that marks the start of a life-long obsession. A lot of pilots began as balloon spotters, perhaps photographing the balloons before progressing to crewing and then flight training. Attending balloon festivals is obviously one way of feeding this engrossing hobby. 

If you’re even the slightest bit ‘geeky’ about technical data, you’ll relish the chance to collect pertinent information on the balloons you spot – much in the way a train enthusiast collects locomotive specifications.

All balloons bear a registration mark issued by the aviation authority in their country of origin. In the UK this is the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), where all aircraft bear the letter G followed by a hyphen and four letters (e.g., G-RIZI). In France, the country code is F, in Spain EC, in Switzerland SU, and in Japan JA. Like car number plates, some balloon registrations are personalised.

Balloons are also described in a code determined by their respective manufacturer, invariably based on their shape and their volume. A balloon’s roundness is determined by the number of vertical fabric ‘gores’ used in its circumference. Therefore, the bulbous ‘Viva’ shape has fewer gores than the smoothly rounded ’N’ or ‘O’ types. A V-77, for example, is a Viva shape of 77,000 cubic feet capacity; a giant N-500 envelope has a capacity of 500,000 cubic feet.

Round, bulbous, angular: an array of balloon shapes…

Many balloons bear colourful artwork, either the personal design of the owner, or an advertising banner on a sponsored balloon. Sponsored balloons are often made in various sizes carrying the same advertising. These make ideal subjects for a collection.

There’s nothing quite as eye-catching in the air as a special shape balloon, and the only limits appear to be the designers’ imaginations. The places to see these extravagant creations are the bigger balloon festivals, where they tether, or take to the skies, to the delight of admiring onlookers. What’s your favourite special shape? 

One of the ever-popular Bertie Bassett special shapes…

A useful guide to balloons registered in the UK is the UK-Eire Balloon Register, published annually by Balloon Meet Support Services. This data, which BMSS also supplies for Aerostat magazine’s regular Registrations column, lists the registration mark, manufacturer, balloon type, serial number, date registered, and current owner, for all new balloons, restored balloons, and those aircraft that have been de-registered and withdrawn from flying (although it is still possible for many ‘antique’ envelopes to be inflated for display purposes at festivals).